Voyager Space Holdings sets it sights on space stations with majority stake in Nanoracks

Voyager Space Holdings has added X.O. Markets, the parent of commercial space service venture Nanoracks, to its growing catalogue of space companies. The agreement was first announced last December.

This is Voyager’s fourth majority stake acquisition of a space company since its founding in October 2019, and it won’t be its last. Voyager CEO Dylan Taylor told TechCrunch that he anticipates the company will announce two to four more acquisitions this year. It’s an aggressive strategy but key to understanding Voyager’s business model.

“A lot of people confuse us with a fund or private equity strategy, or some kind of a financial instrument, for lack of a better word, and we’re really none of those things,” Taylor said. “We’re an operating company.”

Voyager wants to reach the same level of capability as the space “primes,” or primary companies, in seven to ten years. To get there, it’s pursued a majority stake in a series of space ventures to build out its portfolio of capabilities. Notably, Voyager has always never opted for 100% equity in these companies and it operates in a relatively decentralized way. These business decisions help keep innovation flourishing amongst Voyager’s many ventures, Taylor said.

The typical strategy in private equity – to purchase two competing companies, merge them, and sell them onto another financial buyer – doesn’t ultimately spur growth of the new space economy, he pointed out.

“[That strategy is] really not how you capture value in space,” he said. “You capture value in space by Capability A, marrying it with Capability B and unlocking a new Capability C that’s higher up on the food chain.”

The company also plans to go public via a traditional initial public offering sometime around the third quarter of this year. It anticipates filing the S-1 at some point this summer, Taylor said. He declined to provide further details of the recent acquisition.

Voyager’s previous major acquisitions have been with Pioneer Astronautics, an R&D company that performs, amongst other things, research into supporting life in space; advanced robotics startup Altius Space Machines; and The Launch Company, a launch support company that provides standardized hardware and equipment to launch providers.

The newest acquisition, Nanoracks, has been involved in more than 1,000 projects with the International Space Station, most importantly installing the first commercial airlock on the ISS. Last November, the company also entered into a partnership with the Abu Dhabi Investment Office to research agricultural solutions in challenging physical environments, like the desert – or space.

Perhaps the most interesting of Nanoracks’ endeavors is what it calls its Outpost program: building and operating completely commercial space stations out of the spent upper stages of launch vehicles and other space debris. Nanoracks will be launching a demonstration mission on board a SpaceX mission next month.

The four acquisitions taken together – launch support, advanced robotics, a research company, and now Nanoracks – clearly point to a future in which Voyager is primed to build and operate commercial space stations. While that future is still far off, it’s closer than one might think.

“The last ten years of the industry was defined by getting to orbit,” Taylor said. “I think the next 10 years will be about destinations. I think it’s highly likely we’re going to have somewhere between 8-12 space stations in orbit by 2030.”

Axiom Space and NASA detail first fully private human launch to the Space Station, set for January 2022

Houston-based startup Axiom Space and NASA unveiled more details Monday about the forthcoming Axiom Mission 1 (AX-1), the first fully private human mission to the International Space Station.

The Axiom Mission 1 (AX-1) spaceflight mission will ferry four private astronauts to the International Space Station in January 2022. The eight-day mission will be launched from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida using a SpaceX Crew Dragon. While in space, the crew will be living and working in the U.S. segment of the ISS.

NASA will be paying Axiom $1.69 million for services associated with the mission, such as transporting supplies to the ISS, though that does not include other reimbursable agreements between the two entities.

There’s a “high degree of confidence in the late January date” for the launch, Axiom CEO Michael Suffredini said.

Axiom in January released the identity of the crew members: Canadian investor Mark Pathy, investor Larry Connor, and former Israeli pilot Eytan Stibbe. Leading the crew as mission commander is former NASA astronaut and Axiom Space VP Michael López-Alegría, who has four spaceflights under his belt.

Pathy, Connor and Stibbe will engage in research missions while onboard. Pathy will be collaborating with the Montreal Children’s Hospital and the Canadian Space Agency; Connor, the Mayo Clinic and Cleveland Clinic; and Stibbe, to conduct scientific experiments coordinated by the Israel Space Agency at the Ministry of Science and Technology.

“Larry and Mark are very serious individuals who are dedicated to being the best they can be in the mold of a NASA astronaut and they’re not interested in being tourists,” López-Alegría said during the media briefing. “They want to do their part to improve humankind.”

To prepare for the mission, the four crew members will go on a “camping trip” in the Alaskan foothills for training in July, López-Alegría said. He will start full-time training around August, with Larry starting in September. The rest of the crew will start in October, with around two-thirds of their time dedicated to ISS-specific training and the rest dedicated to training with SpaceX. The staggered schedule is due to the differing responsibilities between the crew members while on board. Axiom will be using the same contractor that NASA uses to train its astronauts.

While Suffredini declined to specify how much the private astronauts paid for their space on the flight, he said he “wouldn’t argue with” widely reported figures in the tens of millions. The Washington Post in January reported that the ticket prices came in at $55 million each.

Prices may not always be so high, but Suffredini said that the industry is likely at least a decade away from serious price drops that might make space travel feasible for the average space-goer.

Axiom intends to offer astronaut flights – both private and national – to the International Space Station and eventually its own privately-funded space station. While Axiom has “things lined up” for AX-2, AX-3 and AX-4, “like everyone we have to compete for the opportunity,” Suffredini said. The number of missions to the ISS is limited because there are only two docking ports on the ISS, Station deputy manager Dana Weigel added. That suggests that additional stations will be necessary to meet the burgeoning demand for both commercial and scientific space missions.

The company also in January 2020 won a NASA contract to develop and install a commercial module to the Harmony docking port of the ISS as early as 2024.

Phil McAlister, NASA’s director of commercial spaceflight development, said that recent announcements on commercial spaceflights from Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic in addition to the Axiom mission have heralded “a renaissance in U.S. human spaceflight.”

“A lot of times history can feel incremental when you’re in it, but I really feel like we are in it this year. This is a real inflection point with human spaceflight,” he said.

SpaceX launches and lands a Falcon 9 rocket booster a record 10th time

SpaceX has launched another 60 Starlink satellites — making 180 delivered to orbit in under two weeks — but the launch early Sunday morning was more notable because it set a new, key record for Falcon 9 rocket reusability. This marked the 10th flight of the first-stage rocket booster used for the launch, which sets a record for re-use for SpaceX as the rocket booster with the most successful mission under its belt.

The launch took place at 2:42 AM EDT, flying from Cape Canaveral in Florida. SpaceX also successfully returned the booster to its drone ship in the Atlantic Ocean for a tenth successful landing for the rocket, too, making it a record-setter in that regard as well, and setting up the possibility that it could fly yet again. SpaceX CEO Elon Musk has said it could be “possible” for a Falcon 9 booster to fly “100+” times with servicing and component replacement.

This Falcon 9 has previously flown on missions including the original uncrewed demonstration mission of Crew Dragon, SpaceX’s astronaut spacecraft, and seven prior Starlink launches. SpaceX has shown just how reusable its rockets are with its aggressive Starlink launch schedule, most of which have employed rocket boosters that have flown a number of missions before, including other launches for the broadband internet megaconstellation.

Since SpaceX is both launch provider and customer on Starlink, it’s actually crucial for the company to realize as many cost savings as possible during its frequent flights building the network of low Earth orbit satellites. Re-use of the boosters is a key ingredient, and one where the cost savings definitely accrue over time. Musk has previously said that the economics are such that for its external customer flights, it’s at about “even” on the second use of a booster, and “ahead” in terms of costs by the third. During its Starlink launch program, SpaceX has repeatedly set and broken its own reusability records, indicating a key means of keeping the costs of building out its in-space satellite infrastructure is using flight-proven boosters as much as possible.

This is the 27th Starlink launch thus far, and SpaceX has another planned just six days from now on May 15, with at least one more likely in the works for later this month after that. The company hopes to have its broadband network built out to the point where it has global reach by the end of this year.

SpaceX might try to fly the first Starship prototype to successfully land a second time

SpaceX is fresh off a high for its Starship spacecraft development program, but according to CEO Elon Musk, it’s already looking ahead to potentially repeating its latest success with an unplanned early reusability experiment. Earlier this week, SpaceX flew the SN15 (i.e., 15th prototype) of its Starship from its development site near Brownsville, Texas, and succeeded in landing it upright for the first time. Now, Musk says they could fly the same prototype a second time, a first for the Starship test and development effort.

The successful launch and landing on Wednesday included an ascent to around 30,000 feet, where the 150-foot tall spacecraft flipped onto its ‘belly’ and then descended back to Earth, returning vertical and firing its engines to slow its descent and touch down softly standing upright. This atmospheric testing is a key step meant to help prove out the technologies and systems that will later help Starship return to Earth after its orbital launches. The full Starship launch system is intended to be completely reusable, including this vehicle (which will eventually serve as the upper stage) and the Super Heavy booster that the company is also in the process of developing.

A second test flight of SN15 is an interesting possibility among the options for the prototype. SpaceX will obviously be conducting a number of other check-outs and gathering as much data as it can from the vehicle, in addition to whatever it collected from onboard sensors, but the options for the craft after that basically amounted to stress testing it to failure, or dismantling it and studying the pieces. A second flight attempt is an interesting additional option that could provide SpaceX with a lot of invaluable data about its planned re-use of the production version of Starship.

Whether or not SpaceX actually does re-fly SN15 is still up in the air, but if it does end up being technically possible, it seems like a great learning opportunity for SpaceX that could help fast-track the overall development program.

 

Virgin Orbit’s LauncherOne is returning to space in June

Orbital launch company Virgin Orbit has scheduled its next mission to space.

Virgin Orbit will be returning its LauncherOne rocket to orbit in June to deliver payloads for the U.S. Department of Defense Space Test Program, SatRevolution, and the Royal Netherlands Air Force.

The manifest includes three CubeSat satellites as part of the DoD’s Rapid Agile Launch Initiative; a CubeSat satellite called BRIK II, Norway’s first military satellite to go to space; and two optical imaging satellites from SatRevolution for Earth observation. DoD awarded the launch to Virgin Orbit’s defense-focused subsidiary VOX Space last April.

LauncherOne will take its payload to a target orbit of around 310 miles above Earth.

This will be the LauncherOne’s first take-off since a demonstration mission in January, during which the LauncherOne carried satellites to low Earth orbit on behalf of NASA. That most recent demonstration was the first time Virgin Orbit proved that its unique hybrid aircraft/orbital rocket system actually works. The first try, which took place in May of last year, ended after the rocket initiated an automatic safety shutdown after detaching from the Boeing 747 that takes it to launch altitude.

The mission will be conducted from the Mojave Air and Space Port in California on a yet-to-be-announced date in June. The rocket will be shipped out to the Mojave site “in the coming days” for prelaunch operations, the company said. Virgin Orbit will offer a public livestream of the mission on its website.

Virgin Orbit is part of a small cohort of private orbital launch companies that have actually sent payloads to space. As opposed to providers like SpaceX, which uses massive rockets similar to legacy designs from agencies like NASA, LauncherOne is essentially a 747 that’s been retrofitted with a rocket. Besides being smaller and able to take off from traditional airplane runways, the 747 saves on costs by being completely reusable.

Virgin Orbit was spun out of Virgin Galactic in 2017, with the latter focusing exclusively on commercial human spaceflight services. In homage to its beginnings as a humble record company, the mission has been christened “Tubular Bells, Part One,” so named after the first track on the first album ever released by Virgin Records.

You can bid for a seat on Blue Origin’s first human spaceflight on July 20

Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin is offering up one seat on the inaugural flight of its sub-orbital rocket New Shepard, set to take place July 20 – but instead of a fixed price ticket sale, the seat will go to the highest bidder.

It’ll work like this: from May 5-19, bidders will be able to bid any amount on an auction website. From May 19, the bids will be made “unsealed,” or made visible, and bidders have continually exceed the highest bid to remain in the running for the seat. Bidding will conclude June 12 with a live online auction.

From Blue Origin’s website, it looks like the overall flight will be relatively quick, with the craft reaching apogee, or its highest point, four minutes after takeoff. The capsule containing the astronauts (and the lucky bidder) will land 10 minutes after takeoff near its launch site in West Texas.

Blue Origin said the winning bid will be donated to its charitable foundation, Club for the Future.

In recent weeks Blue Origin has conducted a dress rehearsal of astronaut loading and unloading. This is only the most recent move from the company, which has been testing and flight-certifying its spacecraft for the past few years. We will update the story as more information becomes available on the auction.

SpaceX launches 60 more Starlink satellites, claims over 500,000 service pre-orders so far

SpaceX has launched 60 more of its Starlink internet broadband satellites — on ‘Star Wars Day,’ no less, and only five days after it launched the last batch. The company has now delivered 420 Starlink satellites since the beginning of March, a sum that SpaceX CEO and founder must not be aware of because he definitely would’ve tweeted about it by now if he was.

This launch took off from Cape Canaveral in Florida at 3:01 PM ET (12:01 PM PT), and used a re-used Falcon 9 booster that had flown 8 times previously. That booster also landed back on SpaceX’s floating drone ship in the Atlantic Ocean, tying the record for SpaceX’s reusable flight program in terms of flying resumed boosters, which it just set in March. This is the company’s 115th Falcon 9 launch so far.

SpaceX also shared updated figures around its Starlink consumer hardware, which is used to transmit and receive signal from the constellation for broadband service. The company has received “over half a million” pre-order reservations for its service so far, which includes advance deposits on the hardware.

That strong demand helps explain why there appears to be such a significant backlog in terms of fulfilling orders for Starlink. Customers looking to user the service can sign up via SpaceX’s website, and place a pre-order for the kit, which induces the Starlink receiver, a router, power supplies and mounting hardware for your home.

The service is available to beta customers in six countries thus far, including Australia, New Zealand, Mexico and the U.S. and Canada, but the goal is to continue to expand coverage to achieve near-global reach by the end of 2021 in terms of service availability, with a number of additional launches planned throughout the rest of the year.

Firefly Aerospace raises $75M Series A at a $1B+ valuation, plus $100M in secondary sale

Firefly Aerospace has raised a total of $175 million, across a $75 million Series A round that valued the company north of $1 billion, and a $100 million secondary transaction which consisted of the sale of holdings held by primary Firefly investor Noosphere Ventures. The launch startup also announced that it intends to raise another $300 million later in 2021, after its forthcoming inaugural Alpha rocket launch, which is currently targeting a June take-off.

Firefly is one of a crop of new commercial launch providers aiming to follow in the footsteps of SpaceX and Rocket Lab, with a goal of serving the growing small satellite launch market. The company has been developing its Alpha rocket for the past few years, and has also been awarded commercial and civil government launch contracts from NASA, General Atomics and others. The Texas-based startup has had its share of setbacks, including the bankruptcy of its original iteration, Firefly Space Systems, which was subsequently re-born as Firefly Aerospace as a wholly owned venture bankrolled by Noosphere Ventures.

The company’s second life also includes a redesigned Alpha vehicle that has more launch capacity, with the ability to carry 1000kg to low Earth orbit, or 600kg to sun-synchronous orbit. It’s also developing a lunar lander called ‘Blue Ghost,’ in order to provide lunar payload delivery services for NASA as part of its Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) program.

Firefly does appear closer than ever to actually flying its launch vehicle, with preparations already significantly advanced at its launch facility in Vandenberg Space Force Base in California. The June window for its debut flight is rapidly approaching, and the company is clearly hoping to use the momentum from that demonstration to boost interest for its next big raise, since it’s declaring its intentions ahead of head (while also claiming this Series A round was “oversubscribed.”)

The Series A ws led by DADA Holdings, and includes participation by Astera Institute, Canon Ball LLC and others. The secondary generated from the sale of Noosphere holdings also included Series A participants, as well as “other investors” according to Firefly.

FAA authorizes SpaceX’s next three Starship test launches

SpaceX is continuing its Starship spacecraft testing and development program apace, and as of this afternoon it has authorization from the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to conduct its next three test flights from its launch site in Boca Chica, Texas. Approvals for prior launch tests have been one-offs, but the FAA said in a statement that it’s approving these in a batch because “SpaceX is making few changes to the launch vehicle and relied on the FAA’s approved methodology to calculate the risk to the public.”

SpaceX is set to launch its SN15 test Starship as early as this week, with the condition that an FAA inspector be present at the time of the launch at the facility in Boca Chica. The regulator says that has sent an inspector, who is expected to arrive today, which could pave the way for a potential launch attempt in the next couple of days.

The last test flight SpaceX attempted from Boca Chica was the launch of SN11, which occurred at the end of March. That ended badly, after a mostly successful initial climb to an altitude of around 30,000 feet and flip maneuver, with an explosion triggered by an error in one of the Raptor engines used to control the powered landing of the vehicle.

In its statement about the authorization of the next three attempts, the FAA noted that the investigation into what happened with SN11 and its unfortunate ending is still in progress, but added that even so, the agency has determined any public safety concerns related to what went wrong have been alleviated.

The three-launch approval license includes flights of SN16 and SN17 as well as SN15, but the FAA noted that after the first flight, the next two might require additional “corrective action” prior to actually taking off, pending any new “mishap” occurring with the SN15 launch.

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk has at time criticized the FAA for not being flexible or responsive enough to the rapid pace of iteration and testing that SpaceX is pursuing in Starship’s development. On the other side, members of Congress have suggested that the FAA has perhaps not been as thorough as necessary in independently investigating earlier Starship testing mishaps. The administration contends that the lack of any ultimate resulting impact to public safety is indicative of the success of its program thus far, however.

Blue Origin will start selling tickets for New Shepard space tourism flights on May 5

Blue Origin seems very close to flying paying customers on its New Shepard sub-orbital rocket, having conducted a dress rehearsal of astronaut loading and unloading on its latest mission. Today, it also revealed that it will be selling the first ticket (tickets?) on board its inaugural commercial flight starting next week, on Wednesday, May 5.

The ‘when, and how much’ are the two burning questions that remain around the Jeff Bezos-backed space company’s first commercial passenger flights. Blue Origin has been in the process of testing, developing and flight-certifying its spacecraft for human use for the past few years, and in its most recent missions the focus has squarely been on what are essentially finishing touches, like the aforementioned dress rehearsal, and a test of cabin comfort, communication and control features on a flight before that earlier this year.

We’ve tried asking Blue Origin CEO Bob Smith about the cost of flights a number of times before, but he declined to provide specifics, beyond saying that it’ll be in the “hundreds of thousands” of dollars range. That’s not a surprising ticket price given the ride, which includes a trip to space in the reusable New Shepard capsule stage that allows passengers to spend multiple minutes totally weightless in zero gravity, with ample window real estate to take in the space-based perspective of Earth.

Blue Origin isn’t share much more right now about what we’ll see next week when it starts selling its first passenger capacity, but did say we can expect more details come Wednesday, so stay tuned.