Space Business: RETVRN

The business of coming back safely from space

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Dear readers,

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: You can go home again, trouble at Aerojet Rocketdyne, and what’s up with the Falcon 9?

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The only thing harder than getting to space? Coming back.

In 2022, there have been 73 licensed orbital launches from the US, but just five spacecraft returned payloads to Earth—all SpaceX Dragon capsules, carrying either astronauts or cargo from the International Space Station.

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That disparity speaks to the challenge of taking an object moving at orbital velocity, about 17,500 mph, and pushing it through the thick atmosphere around the Earth without destroying the spacecraft, then bringing it down to a safe landing. And all that while ensuring whatever or whoever is inside isn’t roasted or smushed.

On Dec. 11, we will see the most extreme version of reentry ever attempted when NASA’s Artemis 1 mission returns from its uncrewed shakedown cruise to the Moon. The primary goal of this mission is to ensure that the Orion spacecraft is capable of bringing astronauts back safely from the Moon, and that everything prior to its encounter with the atmosphere is merely prelude.

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The current speed record for entering the atmosphere was set when Apollo 10 returned from the Moon, but Artemis will be going faster thanks to its larger mass and the use of complex orbits that allow the vehicle to fly to the Moon and back more efficiently. On the way back, it will skip like a stone off the atmosphere before plunging homeward in earnest—a tricky maneuver that will allow it to land with more precision than the Apollo capsules.

When Orion first approaches the planet, it will be moving at 24,900 mph. As it enters the atmosphere, the gasses in front of it will compress and ignite into a plasma as hot as 5,000° F. The vehicle is covered in a thermal protection system that should protect it from these conditions. Since we can’t recreate them on Earth, NASA is turning to a literal trial by fire.

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As the space economy grows in the years ahead, entrepreneurs and market analysts expect to see more spacecraft returning to Earth. They could be carrying passengers returning from tourist trips into space, astronauts flying to government space stations or the Moon, goods manufactured in orbit, or scientific samples.

[Today,] space is pretty much exclusively used to transmit information and data back to Earth,” says Justin Fiaschetti, the co-founder and CEO of Inversion Space, a startup that raised $10 million last year to build low-cost spacecraft that will carry payloads back to Earth. Inverse is starting with a small prototype next year. It hopes to be flying its larger Arc vehicle by 2026.

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The idea came to Fiaschetti and his co-founder, CTO Austin Briggs, during a particularly bad California wildfire season that had them wondering if they could fight blazes from space. They realized the infrastructure for transporting objects back from space was dominated by human-rated (and therefore expensive) spacecraft. A cheaper, more specific vehicle could “turn space into a transportation layer of earth, just as airplanes did for the sky.” That business would piggy-back off growing plans for commercial space stations that will need regular cargo service, and trash runs. There are more fanciful ambitions, too, like stationing critical military supplies in space that could be immediately delivered anywhere in the world.

A more specialized attempt to capitalize on these trends comes from Canopy Aerospace, a start-up founded in 2021. CEO Matt Shieh, a former US Air Force officer, worked with the incubator FedTech and came up with a plan to commercialize ceramic thermal protection technology developed by NASA and other government agencies. Shieh says this technology is almost impossible to obtain commercially—for Orion, Lockheed Martin redesigned Apollo-era tech—and his company will focus on lowering production costs using modern manufacturing techniques like 3D printing.

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Canopy raised $10 million to get the company off the ground this year, despite the headwinds facing venture-backed space firms. Shieh says that’s in part because there is little risk from an R&D perspective, and that Canopy’s time to cash flow is quicker than space firms with higher concept business plans. He already has $95 million worth of interest through letters of intent from six customers. He thinks the market for this kind of material could grow from about $1 billion today to $11 billion by 2030. That’s more than just spacecraft, but also potential hypersonic weapons developed by the military, as well as applications in terrestrial industries, like medical devices. It makes sense—NASA’s thermal protection tech has been spun off into the auto industry, for example.

The contrast between these scrappy startups trying to bring the next space infrastructure online and the hold-your-breath intensity of Orion’s return gets at the model NASA has been pushing for years: The space agency stretches the limits of the final frontier, while private companies make proven capabilities close to home cheaper and thus more common.

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Perhaps the two models will converge. Orion space capsules are expected to continue flying for a decade or more, and Canopy’s Shieh says he hopes one day his company will build the heat shields that bring it back home safely.

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IMAGERY INTERLUDE

I can’t get enough of this detailed image of the Orion spacecraft, a selfie taken by the vehicle’s onboard cameras so that NASA can inspect the vehicle during flight. That’s what space travel looks like, right there.

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Image for article titled Space Business: RETVRN
Photo: NASA

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SPACE DEBRIS

Adults needed at Aerojet? A feud in the military industrial complex went public eye after Raytheon CEO Greg Hayes roasted Aerojet Rocketdyne, the venerable rocket engine builder that makes propulsion systems for Raytheon’s missiles, and for spacecraft like the SLS. “We need some adult supervision there to actually help these guys,” Hayes told DefenseOne.

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Astra’s big pivot continues. The publicly traded rocket maker’s chief engineer, Benjamin Lyon, resigned, with new execs tapped to lead the development of its next launch vehicle. When Lyon, an Apple engineer, was hired in 2021, Astra CEO Chris Kemp told Quartz that “the platform people are running Astra, not the rocket people.” That strategy appears to have reversed.

Blue Origin has a new “National Team.” Jeff Bezos’ space company is bidding to be the second maker of a human-rated lunar lander after SpaceX as part of a team-up with Boeing and Lockheed Martin, but without former partner Northrop Grumman. Northrop is now working with Dynetics, another space firm, on its own human lander proposal.

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Slingshot raises $40 million. The “space safety” company completed a new fundraising round to advance its platform to track activity in orbit.

NASA okays NEOSurveyor. The only tool that can spot dangerous asteroids—a much-delayed infrared space telescope—has passed a key review at the US space agency, which tees up the mission for a 2028 launch, though members of Congress are pushing to see it take flight sooner.

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SpaceX launches new defense business. Dubbed “Starshield,” the new division aims to use the know-how gained building the company’s Starlink satellite constellation to make spacecraft for the US military and intelligence agencies. After seeing the enormous disparity between the company’s consumer offering and what it wanted the Pentagon to pay for Starlink service in Ukraine, it will be interesting to see how SpaceX’s bids line up with potential competitors like Boeing and Lockheed Martin.

What’s up with the Falcon 9? The last two planned launches of SpaceX’s Falcon 9, for a Japanese moon lander and satellite operator OneWeb, have been called off for unspecific reasons. SpaceX isn’t saying what’s going on, but this is the largest interruption in the company’s launch cadence in some time.

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What’s up with New Shepard? It’s also been almost three month since Blue Origin’s New Shepard rocket suffered an in-flight failure. The Federal Aviation Administration, which is investigating the mishap, said it had no updates; Blue Origin did not respond to questions.

Your pal,

Tim

This was issue 161 of our newsletter. Hope your week is out of this world! Please send inside info on the New Shepard mishap investigation, your favorite Artemis 1 pictures, tips, and informed opinions to tim@qz.com.