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It’s a matter of a ’mater on the ISS

SpaceX's staggering $175 billion valuation, China's space power ambitions, the curious case of a lost tomato on the ISS, space development across Africa, and more!




SpaceX's staggering $175 billion valuation, China's space power ambitions, the curious case of a lost tomato on the ISS, Davis Cook on space development across the African continent, and more!

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T-Minus Guest

Our guest today is Davis Cook, CEO of Research Institute for Innovation and Sustainability, discussing the history of space development across the African continent and its economic ramifications.

You can follow Davis Cook on LinkedIn.

Selected Reading

SpaceX's Tender Offer Values Startup at $175 Billion or More- Bloomberg

China space authorities name Elon Musk’s SpaceX an ‘unprecedented challenge’- SCMP

Blue Origin Unveils Versatile Spacecraft Platform, Blue Ring- TS2

Cosmic Girl has a facelift and is given a new name

NorthStar Earth & Space closes CA$20 million Series D financing round to launch the world’s first space based SSA commercial service- Press Release 

Aussie company Quasar joins the global satellite space race- AFR 

Thales Alenia Space signs a multi-satellite contract with PT Len Industri- SatNews

OurSky lands $9.5M seed to build out developer platform for space data- TechCrunch

NRO Awards Commercial Electro-Optical Capabilities Contracts- NRO

Crossed wires led to high drama as NASA returned asteroid samples to Earth- Ars Technica 

VERSES and NASA Partner to Pursue Standards For Space Industry- Press Release

Buzz in the commercial space industry- WMFE

A year of firsts for electric propulsion- Aerospace America 

HOTSAT-1: Images of COP28 venue from 'flying thermometer' highlight global temperature challenges- SkyNews

Argentina's Space Agency says it's satellite images is helping to resolve judicial cases- SpaceWatch

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>> Maria Varmazis: You ever forget some veggies way back in the dark crevices of your fridge, only to find it weeks later, shall we say very science experimenty? Yeah, that's not my favorite thing to discover either. Now just imagine that in space. Bleh. While they do science experiments aboard the International Space Station, it's not often that they're replicating how to culture a neglected vegetable bin, except they kind of just did, albeit unintentionally. Gross. Cool. But yeah, gross.

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Today is December 7, 2023. I'm Maria Varmazis, and this is T-Minus.

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SpaceX's latest eye-watering valuation. Blue Origin wants to put a Ring on it. Stratolaunch gives old Cosmic Girl a facelift and a new name. And our guest today is Davis Cook, CEO of RIIS on the history and opportunities for the fast-growing space economy across Africa. It's a fascinating conversation. You really don't want to miss it.

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Let's dive into today's Intel briefing, shall we? According to a new report. From Bloomberg, the latest financial scuttlebutt being discussed at SpaceX, a tender offer to purchase insider shares at about $95 a share would value the company at -- and are you ready for this one -- $175 billion U.S. dollars. Earlier this summer, the company had a $150 billion valuation, and since then, their Starlink sales have only continued to grow, to say nothing of the continued success of the workhorse Falcon 9 and ongoing testing of Starship, of course. So with all that, and with the company worth $175 billion or more -- or more, yes, or more, well, add Astra to SpaceX's valuation. And in a related story, that's kind of the inverse of what we often hear, in the U.S. anyway, new reporting from the South China Morning Post says state-owned China Space News is expressing concern that China's goal to become the world's dominant space power by 2045 is not going as well as hoped. The China Space News piece writes that Chinese contractors like CASC are "obviously lagging behind SpaceX," saying -- and I'm also quoting here, "CASC is big but not strong or outstanding enough." And that aerospace workers in China have to keep a "deep sense of crisis to not just keep up with SpaceX, but to exceed what it's working on." A reminder that China is working. Hard to lead the world in launch from getting its competitor network to Starlink up and running, to landing its own astronauts on the moon and returning samples from the surface of Mars. And they're going to do all that if all goes well by 2030. Both China and the U.S. have their work cut out for them, of course, and here's hoping no matter who does what first, that all of humanity wins. Blue Origin recently introduced its Blue Ring spacecraft platform. Blue Ring aims to provide a standardized yet customizable foundation for diverse payloads, scientific missions, and potential crude flights, representing a leap forward in space technology and exploration. Will there be Cosmic Girl after Virgin Orbits bankruptcy? Well, no worries. Stratolaunch took her in, and she's found a new home and even has a fresh paint job and a new name. She's now The Spirit of Mojave, named as a tribute to the passion of the Mojave aerospace community, according to Stratolaunch. And the company says she'll be back up and fully flying in the first half of 2024. I am so glad to hear it. Montreal-based North Star Earth and Space announced that they have raised 20 million Canadian dollars for its space-based situational awareness constellation, set to monitor over 11,000 satellites and 128 million pieces of orbital debris. This space-based system supported by Quebec's government and international investors aims to enhance space traffic management and collision prevention, marking a significant step in sustainable space environment efforts. And in related news, Australian company Quasar is entering the race to enhance tracking of the rapidly increasing number of satellites, as well. Quasar, backed by Australia's National Science Agency, is launching a Wi-Fi for space technology in the U.S., aiming to enable simultaneous connections with multiple satellites. This technology, crucial for managing the expected surge in satellites from 8,200 thereabouts to 65,000, would improve the efficiency of satellite tracking and enhance their safety. Quasar's expansion includes a new U.S. office and plans for public listing, indicating significant growth in the space infrastructure sector down under. Thales Alenia Space signed a multi-mission contract with PT Len Industri to provide a state-of-the-art Earth observation constellation, combining radar and optical sensors and dedicated to the Indonesian Ministry of Defense. The companies plan to join forces to deploy Indonesia's end-to-end system, including space and ground segment. Startup OurSky closed 9.5 million U.S. dollars in seed funding led by Upfront Ventures, alongside Oceans Ventures, Venrock Investment Management, Marlinspike Partners, and Embedded Ventures. With the funding, OurSky plans to make space observational data more accessible using their software platform that engages the existing global telescope network, rather than investing in expensive equipment. The U.S. National Reconnaissance Office has announced five new contracts under its Strategic Commercial Enhancements Initiative, aiming to utilize and assess commercial electro-optical capabilities. These contracts awarded to companies like Airbus, U.S. Space and Defense, and Albedo Space focus on analyzing sensor capabilities and cybersecurity. This move is part of NRO's broader effort to expand commercial data acquisition following earlier contracts for hyperspectral imaging, radio frequency remote sensing, and radar. This initiative reflects NRO's commitment to integrating rapidly evolving commercial space-based data to meet growing demands in intelligence and defense. Now we covered the Osiris Rex mission extensively this fall when they successfully returned asteroid samples to the Earth. But new reporting suggests that there was more than a little drama behind the scenes. The billion-dollar mission, launched in 2016, aimed to collect organic molecules from asteroid Bennu. And during reentry on September 24, 2023, a malfunction occurred. The drogue parachute, which is meant to stabilize the capsule, failed to deploy at 100,000 feet, causing concern of a crash similar to the Genesis mission. But fortunately, the main parachute opened unexpectedly, ensuring a safe landing. This incident was caused by a wiring error in the parachute deployment system and highlights the complexities and challenges of space missions. Despite the scare, the mission's success provides valuable insights into organic materials and water on asteroids potentially linked to Earth's water sources. A quick update for everyone who's into standards. NASA's JPL, or Jet Propulsion Laboratory, is joining the beta program of Genius, the intelligence as a service platform by Verses. Genius is built on the open standards designed by the Spatial Web Foundation being developed within the IEEEP2874 Spatial Web Architecture and Governance working group. And hey, shameless plug today as we close out the Intel briefing. You might have heard me on the air in Florida earlier this week. I joined Brendan Byrne again on "Are We There Yet?", the NPR Podcast and radio show heard on 90.7. WMFE and 89.5 WMFB. Check it out on your podcast stream, if you weren't in Florida to catch me on the radio on Tuesday, and thanks, again, to Brendan Byrne for having me on the show. It's always a great time.

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And that's it for our Intel Briefing for today. And for your selected reading pleasure, Aerospace America, and that's AIAA's publication, has a nice roundup about advances in electric propulsion. In the ongoing coverage of COP28 in the UAE, a British-built flying thermometer has taken images of the sunbaked venue of the Dubai Climate Summit to highlight how rising global temperatures will challenge urban areas. And in what may very well be a first, Argentina's Space Agency is promoting the use of satellite information to support their resolution of legal conflicts. You'll have to read more about it. But the test case involved penguins in Punta Tombo. Penguins! Links and penguins are found in the show notes and at space.n2k.com. And hey, T-Minus crew, if your business is looking to grow your voice in the industry, expand the reach of your thought leadership, or to recruit talent, T-Minus can help. We'd like to hear from you. Just send us an e-mail at. space@n2k.com. Or send us a note through our website so we can connect about building a program to meet your goals.

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>> Maria Varmazis: Our guest today is Davis Cook, CEO of RIIS, discussing the industry of space in Africa and looking ahead, why it's an exciting time for the space economy in Africa.

>> Davis Cook: If we think of the broader kind of idea of space, the first kind of research facilities, magnetic observatories, were established close to Cape Town in the 1860s, so going back 160 years from now. Of course, that's space science, and if we think of the more traditional space activities of what we would sort of call today, then countries like South Africa established part of NASA's Deep Space Network during the 50s and 60s. And there's been all sorts of programs running back 40-50 years. ESA, for example, had a launch facility, the San Marco facility, off the coast of Kenya at Malindi where they launched a number of kind of small launches up until the mid-80s, and even to this day, have ground stations there. So there's really been a long history of African contributions into the global space sector, which is, you know, often overlooked and is not common knowledge even amongst citizens of various African countries. So there's a lot of depth of knowledge, of experience, and also just, there's a real advantage to, from a geographic perspective, that Africa has in being able to provide space-related services.

>> Maria Varmazis: When I've talked to other people who mention various space programs within Africa, usually it's sort of like, well, we're talking mainly just agriculture use, and that feels extremely simplistic, but it is, maybe, also applicable. But there are, you know, huge continents, lots of different countries, lots of different needs. It feels almost impossible to be like can you let me? Like walk us through what kind of applications you see happening. But could you?

>> Davis Cook: It is important sort of to start with by realizing that, you know, Africa is the second-largest continent by land area. You know, 54 countries, 1.3 billion people. And so, it's an incredibly diverse cultural, political, geographic kind of environment. And that provides some constraints in how you do things, but also, a lot of opportunity. And so, when we look at the range of applications, there are, you know, every part of the space value chain has some center of excellence across the continent. So there are really sort of like high-end capabilities around image processing and the downstream applications in Nigeria and Egypt. There's really good kind of data capabilities in terms of programming, and so on, that you see coming out of places like Kenya. South Africa has a small but vibrant upstream subsystem manufacturing sector. So, even though it is still relatively small, the total African space economy is around $25 billion.

>> Maria Varmazis: Bigger than I think many people would expect. Yeah.

>> Davis Cook: Exactly, which is, you know, kind of on the order of about like 4%, I think, of the global economy, but you'll find these little sectors of excellence all over the place. And so, I think that's, for me, one of the kind of interesting stuff is also because we don't have such a large local market, many of these firms have to operate at a global scale and be globally competitive. So, you know, I like to think of our organizations and our agencies as being small, but really, really good at what they do.

>> Maria Varmazis: Do you see things changing in terms of more local application, in addition to that global application?

>> Davis Cook: Absolutely. I think that, you know, first, of course, the rapidly decreasing cost to launch means lower, you know, access costs and so, you know, more people able to sort of make use of these services. And I think that, you know, one of the -- one of the things that's really happened, as I'm sure you're aware of, over the last 10 or 15 years is just the awareness that people have of the space sector. You know, one of the advantage of the billionaire races is it's -- it's kind of pushed space into, you know front and center of everyone's mind. And so, you know, one of the things that we've seen is a lot more interest from these different countries, from entrepreneurs and startups, into the space sector. So, we've been, you know, we've been part of a bigger program since about 2016, looking at, essentially, running a big startup challenge or competition across Africa. And in 2016, there were about a dozen applicants from only one country, South Africa. And in recent years, we're seeing up to 100 applicants from 25 or 30 countries across the continent. So just in terms of quantity, you're really seeing this increase in demand for services from space and how you can apply that. And so, it's not just in the more traditional sectors like agriculture, although, of course, precision agriculture and those elements are still an important component of that. But we're seeing really interesting applications in disaster management, in last-mile logistics, in telecommunications, in healthcare provision. So it's always like really interesting applications that are coming out that wouldn't have necessarily emerged from kind of industrialized countries that have well-established infrastructure. You know, so, for example, one of the startups we came across recently has been building a delivery system that uses a kind of very clever location-based service which doesn't make sense in a country that has addresses, because you can specify where a package has to be delivered. But in a country that may not necessarily have such a well-developed kind of road network, how do you deliver goods into those areas? And so, they've been finding these really interesting applications that don't exist elsewhere, but of course, are then much more globally relevant.

>> Maria Varmazis: I wanted to get your thoughts on the BRICS Summit that happened in Johannesburg at the end of August. We covered a little bit of the event, and obviously, South Africa has been doing a lot within BRICS and growing its space program. What are your thoughts on what transpired and maybe what might be coming next?

>> Davis Cook: You know, I think that there is -- there is a really interesting space that emerging space nations, and particularly like smaller-emerging space nations such as South Africa, but many of the other African nations can play in this bigger, like geopolitical morass that is space. Like we know that there is all this tension between your kind of like bigger space powers. And I think given the nature of, I think, both economic trade that exists, as well as the historical political relationships between many African countries, and you know, the bigger players, if you think of groups such as like the Non-Aligned Movement, what we find ourselves in is, you know, potentially being or having to play a middle road of maintaining relations and good relationships with both sides, because we can't alienate either one. So South Africa is actually a good example of this, where South Africa recently established a space weather center that provides, you know, satellite telemetry and data for all of the international air travel across the continent, and that is being done, in part, together with Roscosmos. At the same time, it's providing ground station support for NASA's Deep Space Network. And so, you know, we're in the middle.

>> Maria Varmazis: A little tense. Yeah, a little tense.

>> Davis Cook: Yeah, but it -- it gives us the opportunity, I think, to act as an intermediary or a mediator or an interlocutor between these different players in a way that's a little bit easier for us to do than it may be for, you know, a bigger player in that process. And so, I, you know, in my optimistic view of humanity, I would like to believe that that's the kind of role that many sort of emerging space nations, in particular, across Africa, are able to play as an intermediary in building those bridges between all of these different -- different larger actors.

>> Maria Varmazis: May it be so. Honestly, I share your optimism. I would love that. It is fascinating to see the politics entering the world of space more and more, and I hope that that middle path can be found. So I'm with you on that one for sure.

>> Davis Cook: You know, I think it's really important that we don't unconsciously replicate the same tensions and conflicts that exist on Earth in space. Like we have an opportunity to do something different, and it's very rare that we can do that in a new geography, because there are no new geographies on Earth. So, you know, this -- this speaks to the kind of choices we make as we establish these new, you know, these new domains off planet. And I think that like, you know, finding ways to do this in a more collaborative fashion is important for us as a -- as a species.

>> Maria Varmazis: I would love to get your thoughts on a panel that you're going to be speaking on at the Science Forum South Africa. For the audience, the name of the panel is called "A Game Changer for Africa's Space Industry, the African Continental Free Trade Area and Space Diplomacy." I know this is a bit of a challenge, but could you give me your thesis on that? Because this is really cool, and I'd love to hear about it.

>> Davis Cook: Yeah, absolutely. So firstly, some background. As I mentioned, 54 countries across Africa. To date, there are a few free-trade areas that exist at regional levels. But the African Free Trade Agreement has been established to enable essentially duty-free trade between all countries. And this is important because when you look at the amount of inter-African trade that takes place, it is extremely small. Most trade is between Africa and the rest of the world. And there are, of course, huge efficiencies in creating more internal trade activities. So the free trade was kind of spearheaded by the African Union and is aimed at bolstering economic activity and sort of gaining from those efficiencies. So what does that mean from a space perspective? Africa currently spends some $25 billion a year on various space activities, and the majority of those activities, you know, if we look at new satellites that are being built, are outsourced to countries not in Africa. Even though we have the technical capabilities inside to build, you know, anything up to like maybe half a ton or even like a one-ton communications satellite. So in the past, some of the complications around that and the barriers to that have been that it is very difficult to engineer these trade agreements at a space level because of the existing, you know, barriers to trade on the continent. But if you remove those barriers, all of a sudden there is an incredibly cost-competitive opportunity to start building entirely African-built satellites, subsystems, to service the market. And so, this is really one of the big hopes. That we already have all of these centers of excellence. But they aren't very, very well connected. If we are able to remove those barriers, build the right trade relationships, and space acts as a mechanism to promote inter-African trade and really start having a made in Africa kind of stamp on satellites. And you know, I think that allows us to start putting more assets and platforms into space because we're able to do it at a lower cost perspective. It starts to build out a value chain and, you know, that leads to job creation and industrialization and all the great economic development outcomes. So this is the kind of -- kind of the core thinking of what we -- of what I kind of view as the opportunity here.

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>> Maria Varmazis: We'll be right back.

>> Maria Varmazis: Welcome back, and spare a thought for astronaut Frank Rubio for a sec with me. He's back on terra firma now, but he was stuck on the ISS six months longer than expected, and then on top of all that, he was blamed for stealing a tomato. Hasn't that man been through enough? But Frank, you've been vindicated. So everybody stand down. They found the missing ISS tomato. Currently aboard the ISS, astronaut Jasmin Moghbeli, broke the news via video live stream yesterday.

>> Jasmin Moghbeli: Well, we might have found something that someone had been looking for for quite a while. Our a good friend, Frank Rubio, who headed home, has been blamed for quite a while for eating the tomato, but we can exonerate him. We found the tomato.

>> Maria Varmazis: The rogue tomato evaded Frank's efforts to find it since March, leading some, and I won't name names, to cast aspersions that he had, in fact, snuck a little bite of a sweet, ripe cherry tomato, right off the vine. Could you blame him if he did? Fresh off the vine? They're like candy. Anyway, while details are scant, the sun dried, but rather, dusty and desiccated remains of the little dude have been found. Meanwhile, I hope Frank is getting some good time in his garden, as he'd hoped, growing a whole heck of a lot of tomatoes, all for himself to enjoy sweet and fresh. He has more than earned it.

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That's it for T-Minus for December 7, 2023. For additional resources from today's report, check out our show notes at space.n2k.com. We're privileged that N2K and podcasts like T-Minus are part of the daily routine of many of the most influential leaders and operators in the public and private sector, from the Fortune 500s to many of the world's preeminent intelligence and law enforcement agencies. This episode was produced by Alice Carruth. Mixing by Elliott Peltzman and Trey Hester, with original music and sound design by Elliott Peltzman. Our executive producer is Jen Eiben. Our VP is Brandon Karpf, and I'm Maria Varmazis: Thanks for listening. We'll see you tomorrow.

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