<img height="1" width="1" src="https://www.facebook.com/tr?id=205228923362421&amp;ev=PageView &amp;noscript=1">

A tale of two Virgins.

Stratolaunch moves to buy Virgin Orbit’s carrier. Virgin Galactic announces launch window. Arqit to quit space. China adds a 56th BeiDou satellite. And more.





Stratolaunch bids $17 million to buy some of Virgin Orbit's assets, including the Cosmic Girl carrier. Virgin Galactic announces the next launch window from May 25. Space News is reporting that British cybersecurity software developer Arqit has hired a financial adviser to sell its space division, and more.

Remember to leave us a 5-star rating and review in your favorite podcast app.

Miss an episode? Sign up for our weekly intelligence roundup, Signals and Space. And be sure to follow T-Minus on Twitter and LinkedIn.


T-Minus Guest

Our guest for today’s episode is Florida Today Space Editor Emre Kelly. Emre will be discussing the progress of Boeing’s Starliner program. 

You can follow Emre on LinkedIn and read his reporting at the Florida Today website.

Selected Reading

Virgin Orbit enters $17 million 'stalking horse' bid to sell aircraft assets- Reuters

Virgin Galactic is a GO for Launch- Virgin Galactic

Arqit launches sale of satellite division- SpaceNews

Black Sky Aerospace’s Rocket Fuel Facility Approval- Space and Defense

China launches the 56th BeiDou navigation satellite- CGTN

SSC Wins New ESA Deal for Nodes Optical Communications Project- Via Satellite

Warpspace wins JAXA contracts for lunar and long-distance optical comms studies– SatNews

SpinLaunch Hires Leading Aerospace Investment Strategist Matthew Mejía As Chief Financial Officer and Chief Strategy Officer- Business Wire

Political fight escalates over Space National Guard - SpaceNews 

NASA’s Artemis program may face a budget crunch as costs continue to rise- Ars Technica

Larger NASA Budget Essential to Beat China to Lunar Resources, Administrator Says- Nextgov

Audience Survey

We want to hear from you! Please complete our 4 question survey. It’ll help us get better and deliver you the most mission-critical space intel every day.

Want to hear your company in the show?

You too can reach the most influential leaders and operators in the industry. Here’s our media kit. Contact us at space@n2k.com to request more info.

Want to join us for an interview?

Please send your pitch to space-editor@n2k.com and include your name, affiliation, and topic proposal.

T-Minus is a production of N2K Networks, your source for strategic workforce intelligence. © 2023 N2K Networks, Inc.

>> Maria Varmazis: It was the best of times. It was the worst of times. It was the age of wisdom. It was the age of foolishness. It was the season of success. It was the season of bankruptcy. It was the spring of launch. It was the winter of dissolution. Yes, you're listening to the correct podcast. Two similar names but two very different fates for Virgin Orbit and Virgin Galactic.

[ Music ]

Today is May, 17, 2023. I'm Maria Varmazis, and this is T-Minus. Virgin Orbit and Virgin Galactic, the similarities end at the name. Arqit quits space. China adds a 56th BeiDou satellite. Some updates from Sweden and Japan's respective space programs. And for today's interview, I'm speaking with Florida Today space editor Emre Kelly. Emre will be discussing the progress of Boeing's Starliner program with me. Stay with us. And here is your intel briefing for today. I got to get all the Keynesian in today's show open, this tale of two virgins. Yeah. Though the companies' names both start with Virgin -- and that's thanks to initial funding from the billionaire Richard Branson -- once these companies are off on their own, despite the similar sounding names, they also have nothing to do with each other. And right now, Virgin Orbit and Virgin Galactic are in pretty opposite places. So let's start with the state of Virgin Orbit. It's bankrupt, officially, as of April, and it's in the process of selling off its assets. Today the news is that Stratolaunch has made a deal to buy some of Virgin Orbit's assets, mostly it's aircraft, including the Cosmic Girl carrier, to the tune of $17 million. Stratolaunch has been working rather famously on its own aired orbit launch vehicles, like the gargantuan ROC aircraft. So Cosmic Girl might find herself quite comfortable in a new home with them. That said, the deadline for all bids on Virgin Orbit assets is May 19th. So you don't have much time if you want to get in and snipe a bid all eBay style. And now over to Virgin Galactic, where things are going pretty darn well, actually. They announced today that they are a go for launch. The Unity 25 will launch to suborbital space with four crew aboard no earlier than May 25th from Spaceport America New Mexico. Now, this marks a happy return to space for Virgin Galactic, as the last such spaceflight was in 2021. So it's been a little while. This is the last check of the full spacefaring system. And if all goes well, Virgin Galactic plans to offer commercial spaceflight on a more frequent cadence starting next month. And we reported in yesterday's show that SES and Tesat are partnering to develop a system for ESA's Eagle-1 quantum encryption satellites. But it seems that not all of Europe sees the value in a satellite system. SpaceNews is reporting that British cybersecurity software developer Arqit has hired a financial advisor to sell its space division. Arquit's space division assets include their quantum encryption satellite program. SpaceNews also reported late last year that Arqit had scrapped plans for a space-based quantum encryption network. Stating that they no longer needed satellites to deliver encryption keys and that they would instead be using a terrestrial system. Australian space and defense company Black Sky Aerospace has been approved to develop a site in southern Queensland to build and test rockets. State and local governments okayed the use of a 2,500-acre agricultural property to develop a rocket fuel facility and associated infrastructure. The news comes just weeks after the company announced that it had successfully produced ammonium perchlorate -- a chemical that makes up about 70% of most rocket fuel. China has launched satellite number 56 for the BeiDou Navigation Satellite System. This is the first BeiDou satellite launch since summer 2020. China says the third-generation of the BeiDou Navigation System is capable of millimeter level accuracy and offers full global coverage for timing and navigation. The system is touted as an alternative to Russia's GLONASS, the European Galileo positioning system, and the US's GPS. The Swedish Space Corporation has been awarded a $2.46 million contract from the European Space Agency for the second phase of the optical communications project NODES. The NODES project -- which stands for the Network of Optical Stations for Data Transfer to Earth from Space -- is developing a direct to Earth data reception service based on free space optical communication. The phase two contract will support the implementation, test, and demonstration of an optical network to be carried out over the next two years. And Japan's Aerospace Exploration Agency -- or JAXA -- has awarded two contracts to Warpspace to study Moon to Earth communications. The first of the two new study and development tasks will look at communications architecture between a lunar orbiting data relay satellite and the lunar surface. The second is the development of an ultrasensitive sensor for satellite detection and tracking with the aim to achieve long-distance, high-speed optical communication between the Moon and the Earth. And for some industry workforce news now, kinetic launch company SpinLaunch has appointed Matthew Mejia as chief financial officer and chief strategy officer. Mejia will lead SpinLaunch's fundraising efforts and accelerate the commercialization of their integrated tech stack that includes launch, satellites, and other services. Now, we all know the cliche "space is hard," and we must also add "space is expensive." Even though the global economy is facing uncertainty, it doesn't stop the US Department of Defense or NASA for calling for more money in their budgets. There is bipartisan support for a Space National Guard and for NASA's Artemis program. But the White House may not have enough to stretch to both in the coming fiscal years. Billions, that's with a B, billions are needed to help secure the skies and to launch the next humans to the Moon. And both agencies are warning that Congress's inability to pass a timely budget has paused progress. And you can read all about budget requests for space and a lot more in the "selective reading" on our website, which is space.n2k.com. And that concludes our intel briefing for today, but stay with me for my conversation with Florida Today space editor Emre Kelly, as he walks us through Boeing's Starliner program. And hey, T-Minus crew, you find this podcast useful, and I really hope you do, please do us a favor and share a five-star rating and a short review in your favorite podcast app. It'll help other space professionals just like you to find the show and join the T-Minus crew. Thank you. And we really appreciate it.

[ Music ]

I went into the interview today with admittedly a bunch of preconceived ideas about Boeing's Starliner. And thanks to my guest, I found myself not only learning a lot but also questioning a number of assumptions that I had held. From its ambitious mission to replace the shuttle program to the setbacks faced along the way, we delve into the challenges and triumphs of the Starliner. And that's all thanks to the perspective and expertise of my guest.

>> Emre Kelly: Going back to 2011 and the end of the space shuttle program, Starliner was one -- ultimately, one of two vehicles selected to place the shuttle's ability to take astronauts to and from the International Space Station. Obviously, Boeing and Starliner was one of those and SpaceX and its Crew Dragon capsule was the second one. So Boeing got the better share of that contract. Both companies continued working toward their first launch. Boeing's first un-crewed test flight for Starliner -- so totally automated, I should say autonomous, test flight in December 2019 -- did not go according to plan. There were just some hardware issues, hardware and software, really. And it returned to Earth early. So had there been astronauts on board, it would've been fine, and it sounds like they would've been okay. But obviously, the mission was not a success. It didn't achieve the goals of easily reaching the ISS and returning home. So since then, a lot's been going on. After that demonstration flight, Boeing agreed essentially to try again, out of their own pocket. They spent I believe it was a couple hundred million dollars to refly Starliner, again, on an autonomous mission to and from the ISS. That second attempt was successful. That went according to plan. So Boeing is now in a stage where they need to do a crewed flight test -- or CFT. And obviously, part of that is putting two astronauts on board for the first time, flying them to the ISS for a short stay. It's not going to be long like a fully operational stay. Those are typically six months. And then those astronauts will return home and they will touch down in White Sands. A little bit hectic here and there, as you would expect with any new program and new spacecraft. So most recently, Boeing and NASA -- because, again, NASA is the primary contractor for this -- this is what they want. This is what they contracted Boeing to do. Boeing and NASA were targeting sometime in April for that crewed flight test. And they kind of came out recently and said, well, that's not going to happen. And it really came down to a delay. Boeing officials said, it's not a traditional delay in the sense that they just kind of need to do more simulations. A lot of it has to do with parachutes. But at the end of the day, it is a delay, it simply is. It's now shifting from April to July. Which is always a fun time of the year to fly. July in Florida is lightning strikes every day and lots of rain. And rain has been a problem for Starliner. There was water intrusion during a previous launch attempt.

>> Maria Varmazis: Oh, really?

>> Emre Kelly: Yeah. So that needed to be worked out. And in Boeing's defense, if I remember that storm correctly, it was torrential. But obviously, spacecraft need to survive quite tough conditions. So Boeing's been working on that in the meantime, and they're now looking at July to launch those two astronauts to and from the ISS. But the good news is, SpaceX is currently filling that crew capacity to and from the ISS. And once Boeing comes on line, that'll be a redundant extra system if something were to happen on the other side. Or if suddenly, you know, the Russian Soyuz capsule was out of commission for some reason, or anything like that, there will be two vehicles on line. Which will be good, good for the astronauts to have another way to get to and from.

>> Maria Varmazis: I actually am surprised to hear that Boeing was the primary winner of the contract, given how much SpaceX has been doing. For some reason I thought it would be the other way around. Not that it's necessarily correlated, but that's just, huh.

>> Emre Kelly: I believe Boeing's argument or discussion at the time when those were awarded -- maybe I shouldn't say Boeing was the primary contractor, but they got more money. They got quite a bit more money. And Boeing's argument at the time was, well, we need to build a new capsule from scratch. SpaceX is going to base their Crew Dragon design on their previous Dragon design. So we need more money. And that's kind of how that shook out. I think from a timing perspective, it's definitely a tough time for Boeing. The Starliner issues were happening at the same exact time the 737 Max issues were happening. Obviously, these are two completely different branches of the company, two completely different teams. But, of course, you know, folks and NASA was asking, are there cultural things? Is it something operational at Boeing? Is it this or is it that? But, honestly, I think media overall and I think the public overall doesn't have enough transparency to be able to answer that with any degree of confidence. But at the end of the day, when they're first uncrewed mission launched in 2019, I mean, you can look at it one of two ways. And at the end of the day, that capsule did not reach the ISS due to hardware and software problems, but it did launch, it did get to orbit, and it did return to White Sands, New Mexico. And, you know, it wasn't a lost vehicle. So obviously, they made quite a bit of progress. And for a brand-new vehicle and, you know, a brand-new contract and building something mostly from scratch, it's tough. And the 2019 flight at least showed in some ways that there are some positives. And to Boeing's credit, as far as I'm aware, they paid out of pocket for these second test flights. So they, if you will, burned a little bit of any profit they would have made early on in that program.

>> Maria Varmazis: If we're talking about Starliner, as you said, starting from scratch, then in a way that timetable is actually very fast. So if you frame it in that way, then things have been moving very quickly on their end. And they're just going through what makes sense for testing for something that that's compressed of a timeline, I suppose.

>> Emre Kelly: Yeah, yeah. I mean, everything these days seems to be operating on a faster timeline. Maybe that's just our sort of human perception of it. But we want things now and we want them faster. You know, being able to get a new iPhone every September is very different from watching, certifying, flying properly a new spacecraft. You know, and one of the big things, officials at NASA, Boeing, SpaceX, pretty much wherever you go, talk about a lot is a lot of folks who are doing this are doing it for the first time. People who did this during Apollo aren't exactly like -- it's been so long since Apollo and Gemini and Mercury. These folks aren't like working at SpaceX or Boeing and holding the hands of the younger people and showing them this stuff. A lot of this stuff for a lot of these people, it's a brand-new thing.

>> Maria Varmazis: What a great point. So yeah, the talent also has to sort of scale up as we go. So hopefully that is something that we'll see ramping as things progress. But in the meantime, we will keep an eye on what's going on with Boeing and Starliner. Emre, thank you so much for walking me through it, I really appreciate it.

>> Emre Kelly: Of course, my pleasure.

[ Music ]

>> Maria Varmazis: And we'll be right back. Welcome back. Now, crowdsourcing efforts to further scientific understanding have a long tradition. For example -- a little history lesson here -- women like Williamina Fleming, Antonia Maury, Annie Jump Cannon, Anna Winlock, Henrietta Leavitt, and Florence Cushman, amongst many others, were part of a group of women called the Harvard Computers. And they pored over reams of astronomical data in the late 1800s to early 1900s. Their work studying and cataloging stars contributed significantly to how we understand and classify stars to this day. And once the word "computer" came to mean a machine and not a person, we even crowdsourced computing power -- if anyone remembers SETI@home in the late '90s. And right now, at least until AI proves me wrong, humans are still the best at detecting patterns and anomalies and spotting things that maybe are where they shouldn't be. And there are a lot of citizen scientist programs out there right now that need your help to look through the astronomical data that's out there. And one of them, well, you can help defend the Earth from a potentially hazardous near-Earth object, kind of. The Catalina Sky Survey, based out of the University of Arizona, looks for near-Earth asteroids nightly. But it can't go through all the data it collects. So it needs you to help look through its images to see if the detections that they've made are real possible asteroids or just false alarms. The project launched yesterday, and so far, 828 volunteers have already classified over 34,000 images. And new images are uploaded daily for citizen scientists to look at. So no need to rush and call dibs, there's plenty of space for everybody. And that's it for T-Minus for May 17, 2023. For additional resources from today's report, check out our show notes at space.n2k.com. We'd love to know what you think of our podcast. You can always email us at space@n2k.com, or submit the survey in our show notes. You know, your feedback ensures that we deliver the information that keeps you a step ahead in the rapidly changing space industry. N2K's strategic workforce intelligence optimizes the value of your biggest investment, your people. We make you smarter about your team while making your team smarter. This episode was produced by Alice Carruth, mixing by Elliott Peltzman and Tre Hester, with original music and sound design by Elliott Peltzman. Our executive producer is Brandon Karpf. Our chief intelligence officer is Eric Tillman, and I'm Maria Varmazis. Thanks for listening.

[ Music ]

Similar posts

Stay in the loop on new releases. 

Subscribe below to receive information about new blog posts, podcasts, newsletters, and product information.