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: The Space Force picks winners, Derecho data, and the small rocket race.
We’ve found something Elon won’t tweet about.
SpaceX won a major coup last week after years of effort—a contract to launch about a dozen spacecraft for the US Space Force in the next five years, worth well north of a billion dollars.
It could be seen as the crowning moment of a very good summer for Elon Musk’s rocket company. Neither SpaceX nor its voluble CEO, however, has had anything to say about it in the six days since the award was announced, unlike other participants in the bid.
Blue Origin, Jeff Bezos’ space company, and Northrop Grumman, both of which saw their bids fail, expressed disappointment and confidence in their technologies. United Launch Alliance, the Boeing-Lockheed Martin joint venture that won about 19 launches in the contract, took a victory lap.
One reason SpaceX might be silent is that they’re waiting for an official debrief explaining how the decision was reached; as of Aug 11, ULA CEO Tory Bruno said his company hadn’t received one. Neither SpaceX, the Department of Defense nor US Space and Missile Systems Command responded to repeated questions about the status of the debrief.
Another potential reason? SpaceX is still suing the United States over the precursor to this award, and might be inclined to do the same over this decision. In 2018, the US gave the other three competitors, but not SpaceX, some $2.3 billion in funding to develop new launch vehicles ahead of the final selection. SpaceX sued, culminating in a July hearing that has a California federal judge mulling over the final decision.
Much of that lawsuit is sealed to protect the competitive secrets of SpaceX and the other bidders, but redacted filings give us a clue about what Musk and company are upset about. Recall that an inciting incident for buying new rockets was a law enacted in 2014 to end the use of Russian RD-180 rocket engine, which was relied upon by ULA. At that time, ULA held a monopoly on US rocket launches that SpaceX broke, eventually helping save the government $7 billion.
SpaceX complains that the Air Force (the decision was made pre-Space Force) didn’t follow its own rules for the 2018 procurement, in part because it will allow ULA to use 12 Russian engines remaining in its stockpile until ULA’s new rocket, Vulcan, comes online. SpaceX also suggested that government didn’t correctly analyze the risk of its competitors failing to deliver its rockets on time, and questioned whether shared components among the three other bidders could really produce two redundant launch vehicles, as envisioned by lawmakers. SpaceX also maintains that the Air Force underestimated the cost of those rockets, while overestimating SpaceX’s costs.
And perhaps most intriguing, the Air Force didn’t agree with SpaceX’s estimate that it would be ready to fly a next generation vehicle (now known as Starship and then as “BFR,” for Big Falcon Rocket) within five years. The service and SpaceX also disagreed about whether the Space Shuttle was a good analogy to the new vehicle.
The ultimate decision to give SpaceX one of the two launch contracts puts this litigation in an interesting place. As lawyers for SpaceX’s rivals point out, winning the contract with its existing rockets suggests SpaceX did not require the development funding it initially sought. SpaceX might reply that it shows the government wasted money on rockets it ultimately chose not to buy.
Another outcome, vacating the development contracts retroactively for unfairness, would be a large problem for SpaceX competitors and potentially their customers, including the Space Force. Will Roper, the Pentagon official in charge of the procurement, emphasized that the government sees this procurement as an opportunity to boost competition in the US space industry and maintain its advantage over rivals like China.
Regardless its ongoing lawsuit, SpaceX may be contemplating a new challenge to the Space Force’s final decision to give 60% of the upcoming flights to ULA, versus the 40% it was awarded. That’s a rough difference of six launches, which represents a significant chunk of revenue for any launch company, especially one with an expensive research and development agenda.
Still, the rates being paid by the Air Force may be designed to discourage complaints: SpaceX’s first launch under the new contract will cost the government $316 million. That mission is classified, but we can assume it uses SpaceX’s larger, most expensive rocket, the Falcon Heavy—which cost just $130 million when the US Air Force last bought it two years ago.
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This week, a massive formation of thunderstorms known as a “derecho” passed over the central United States, with severe weather knocking out power and damaging homes. Using data from earth-observing satellites that track cloud cover and lightning activity, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration was able to produce this terrifying image of the derecho moving from Iowa and Wisconsin into Illinois and on to Indiana:
Thanks to meteorologist Dakota Smith for the tip.
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As companies contemplate how best to re-open Covid-closed offices, we wondered how employees are feeling about going back?
Half-n-half. A poll by Adecco Group of 1,000 office workers in eight countries found that the work pattern most people wanted was to spend 51% of their time in the office, and 49% remote.
Getting stuff done. Deutsche Bank found in a July poll that 70% of people surveyed said they were more productive working from home.
Newbie nostalgia. An April 2020 survey of 1,000 working Americans conducted by software company Smartsheet, found that the youngest workers were struggling the most with working from home, despite being the most tech-savvy.
Not all bad. Around 37% of people surveyed in July by Qualtrics, a firm that helps companies manage employee experience, and Quartz, thought culture at their workplace had improved since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Covid-19 is forcing companies across the world into the throes of discovering what “the office” means to them. Read more in our field guide to reimagining the office.
In other SpaceX litigation news…The launch company has been caught up in a Moldovan oil investor’s effort to claim a $500 million judgement from the Republic of Kazakhstan. His global hunt for Kazakh assets brought him to the US, and his attorneys want to know the details behind the 2018 launch of two satellites for Kazakhstan on a SpaceX Falcon 9. Both the rocket-maker and Spaceflight, which brokered the launch agreement, have fought subpoenas from Stati’s lawyers; Spaceflight was forced to disclose documents, while a judge has not yet ruled on whether SpaceX will cough up details about its launch negotiations.
Griffin Rampant. Michael Griffin, the outspoken polymath who has influenced US space policy since the Reagan administration, has taken a new job since departing his Pentagon technology role last month: He’s now on the board of Rocket Lab, the leading small-satellite launcher. The former head of NASA and an early consultant for SpaceX is back in the private sector, but it’s unlikely he’s lost his interest in national security.
Small rocket update. Speaking of small rockets, we’ve been waiting a while for another company in the sector to field its own vehicle. Ars Technica has a good rundown of the four contenders to start lofting satellites this year—Virgin Orbit, Firefly, Astra, and ExPace.
Astronomers gird up for constellation coordination. SpaceX is making 120 satellites a week to fly into orbit for its broadband internet network, and competitors like Amazon and whatever emerges from OneWeb’s bankruptcy have their own mega-constellation plans. These spacecraft are likely to disrupt astronomical observations at least some of the time. Though SpaceX has made strides in ameliorating concerns about its satellites in the absence of real regulation, space observers will need to go through the same work with its competitors.
This was issue 61 of our newsletter. Hope your week is out of this world! Please send Russian blessings for Elon Musk, terrifying meteorological GIFs, tips, and informed opinions to email@example.com.