Jun 2, 2020

Axios Space

By Miriam Kramer
Miriam Kramer

Thanks for reading Axios Space. At 1,561 words, this week's newsletter will take you about 6 minutes to read.

1 big thing: NASA passes the torch

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

With the historic crewed SpaceX launch last weekend, NASA passed the torch to private companies who will need to step up to build the economy the space agency envisions in orbit.

Why it matters: This new era of spaceflight will likely be marked by new conflicts — possibly including product placement (like the Tesla that drove the astronauts to the pad on Saturday), safety concerns and cultural differences between companies and the space agencies and people they serve.

What's happening: On Saturday, SpaceX launched its first crewed spacecraft for NASA, bringing a mission six years in the making to fruition.

  • Unlike previous crewed missions to the space station, this one was run by a private U.S. company conducting prelaunch prep, mission control and the space station docking as part of a commercial venture.
  • "It's a new way of doing business," Eric Stallmer, the president of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation, told Axios.

The big picture: NASA is now working toward becoming a buyer of rockets, spacecraft and various services instead of a provider in low-Earth orbit, passing off more responsibility to private companies and allowing NASA to focus on further-afield goals like getting people to Mars.

  • "Those partnerships are going to enable our providers to get customers that are not NASA and drive down our costs, and we're going to have numerous providers that are competing on cost and innovation and safety," NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine said after the Crew Dragon docked on Sunday.
  • Yes, but: "The emergence of space as an economically valuable commercial endeavor has had a number of milestones along the last 20 years," aerospace consultant Jeff Greason told Axios. "This is another one. And it's a very important one, but it's not the only one, and it's not the last one."

What to watch: Effectively, this mission is a proof of concept for companies hoping to one day make money in space.

  • While companies like SpaceX have been working toward making spaceflight cheaper and more accessible, there is still a long way to go before flights to space for humans and cargo are affordable.
  • The economic crisis caused by the coronavirus pandemic could make it harder for companies interested in building the economy in low-Earth orbit to find funding.
  • NASA may also paint itself into a corner with its commercialization plans. If future administrations don't prioritize exploration and private companies have taken over most operations in low-Earth orbit, it might leave the agency stranded on the ground.
2. What space means right now

The Falcon 9 rocket takes flight. Photo: SpaceX

As SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket sped to space Saturday, protests over the death of George Floyd and other police-involved killings of black Americans were taking place on Earth, creating a sharp juxtaposition between two facets of life in the U.S.

Why it matters: While much of the rhetoric around accomplishments in space place it outside of Earthly concerns — like racism and systemic oppression — space has never been separate from politics on Earth. And it isn't today.

The big picture: NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine saw the launch on Saturday as a moment of inspiration in a difficult time.

  • "I am hoping that people can see this as something that is bright and hopeful and that people know that tomorrow is a new day, and a better day, and we're always going to strive to do better," Bridenstine told Axios during a press conference Saturday.

Yes, but: Others don't necessarily see it that way.

  • "As long as we posit a world in which they [people of color] are supposed to turn off their humanity and draw some sort of colorblind inspiration from a launch that hasn't even acknowledged their pain and their presence, we're going to continue to not make strides in the way that we need to be," Lucianne Walkowicz, astronomer and co-founder of JustSpace Alliance, told Axios.

Between the lines: An American Institute of Physics task force found this year that the underrepresentation of African Americans in physics and astronomy is due to the systemic barriers African American students face within universities.

  • The first black American — astronaut Guion Bluford — didn't reach space until 1983, decades after Alan Shepard's first flight in 1961.
  • Not until the 2016 publication of the book "Hidden Figures" was there widespread acknowledgment of the contribution of three African American women to get us to the Moon in the first place.

Background: Apollo 11 is often pointed to as a moment where people around the U.S. came together during a time of great division to watch something amazing, but it didn't erase what was happening on the ground in 1969.

  • Civil rights leader Ralph Abernathy led a march on Kennedy Space Center ahead of the Apollo 11 launch, pointing out the high price tag of the program against the poverty many black Americans were facing.
  • Art also highlighted the stark difference between what NASA was doing to win the Space Race and how people — and specifically people of color — were living day to day.
  • Take these lines from Gil Scott-Heron's "Whitey on the Moon":
A rat done bit my sister Nell.
(with Whitey on the moon)
Her face and arm began to swell.
(but Whitey's on the moon)
Was all that money I made last year
(for Whitey on the moon?)
How come there ain't no money here?
(Hmm! Whitey's on the moon)
Y'know I just about had my fill
(of Whitey on the moon)
I think I'll send these doctor bills,
Airmail special
(to Whitey on the moon)

The bottom line: "The fact that we are still having these conversations some 50 years later, should show us how much we have failed to make progress," Walkowicz said.

3. China's big launch plans

Illustration: Lazaro Gamio/Axios

China has an ambitious new plan to build a space station in orbit by 2023.

Why it matters: The U.S. sees China as a rival in space, so any large undertaking like this one will be watched closely.

  • The space station also represents the evolution of China's space program, which made use of two smaller test stations in orbit that hosted crew before moving on to this more complex design.

Details: China plans to launch the first module of its new space station next year, with a total of 11 launches needed to complete the station by 2023, according to a report from SpaceNews.

  • The station is expected to eventually play host to crews of three astronauts aboard for six months who can perform experiments and other activities from orbit.
  • "It's quite possible that maybe even their first but probably their second or third crew for their space station will include a foreigner," Dean Cheng, a space analyst focusing on China at the Heritage Foundation, told Axios.
  • China is also planning to launch a telescope that will be able to dock to the station for maintenance, SpaceNews said.

What to watch: In mid-May, intact pieces of China's Long March 5 booster fell back to Earth, potentially putting people on the ground in Ivory Coast in danger and flouting norms among nations to safely de-orbit their spent rockets.

  • With a number of launches coming up, it remains to be seen whether China will start issuing warnings about where their rockets are coming down or find new ways to dispose of them safely.
  • It's also possible the crewed SpaceX launch could influence the burgeoning commercial space sector in China, according to Cheng.
  • "The Chinese are worried, not about Elon Musk per se, but they recognize that companies can do entrepreneurship way better than state-owned enterprises," Cheng said.
4. The Sun wakes up

Photo: NASA/Solar Dynamics Observatory/Joy Ng

The Sun unleashed a strong solar flare last week for the first time since 2017, potentially signaling that our nearest star's activity is ramping up after a long period of quiescence.

Why it matters: Strong solar flares can harm satellites and people in space, while the most extreme flares could take down Earth's electrical grids.

  • Tracking the Sun's 11-year solar cycle can help scientists learn more about why it behaves the way it does and possibly predict the star's activity.

Details: NASA probes in space caught sight of the M-class flare on May 29 as it shot out from a family of sunspots — dark, transient regions on the Sun — that should be rotating into view shortly.

  • The flare was relatively weak and therefore didn't trigger an alert from the Space Weather Prediction Center. Future flares from this family of sunspots, however, could be stronger.

What's next: Scientists will closely watch the Sun's activity in the coming weeks to see if the star is, in fact, coming out of its slumber and entering into a new period of activity.

  • The Sun's period of least activity — known as "solar minimum" — can only be seen in hindsight, after many months have passed.
  • "The sunspots may well be harbingers of the Sun's solar cycle ramping up and becoming more active," NASA said in a statement. "Or, they may not. It will be a few more months before we know for sure."
5. Out of this world reading list

Photo: SpaceX

Unheard-of composition could explain 'Oumuamua's weirdness (Mike Wall, Space.com)

Army’s evaluation of Starlink broadband to focus on reliability, vulnerability (Sandra Erwin, SpaceNews)

SpaceX launch provides a chance to compare the new and old (Christian Davenport, Washington Post)

SpaceX capsule carrying astronauts docks with space station (Axios)

Why space is good politics for Trump (Margaret Talev and myself, Axios)

6. Your weekly dose of awe: A star cluster without planets

Photo: NASA/ESA/STScI/Aura/Westerlund 2 Science Team

Scientists think most stars in our galaxy play host to planets, but 20,000 light-years away, a dense cluster of stars is proving to be the exception to that rule.

  • New research from scientists using the Hubble Space Telescope found the core of the star cluster Westerlund 2 is inhospitable to newly forming planets.
  • Researchers think that the dearth of worlds is likely due to immense radiation from huge nearby stars blowing away any planet-forming dust clouds.
  • Moving away from the core of the cluster, however, disks of gas and dust that give rise to planets seem plentiful.
Miriam Kramer

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