July 27, 2021

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1 big thing: The end of the ISS

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

NASA is at risk of losing a foothold in orbit after the end of the International Space Station.

Why it matters: Without an operating base in space, the agency's plan to shift from being a sole provider of services in orbit to a customer of companies operating there is in jeopardy.

  • NASA is hoping that instead of running its own space station, it will have the option to send its astronauts to privately run space stations in orbit by the time the ISS ends.

Driving the news: NASA this month put out a final call asking for companies to submit their ideas for space stations they could build and operate where astronauts could visit and perform experiments.

  • Those space stations would need to be up and running by the time the ISS comes to an end by 2030 or earlier.
  • NASA will award money to the companies chosen for certain milestones, but the agency isn't going to fully fund the development of these space stations, according to the request for proposals.

Background: It took nine years for SpaceX's Dragon to fly NASA astronauts to the space station after the end of the space shuttle program, a long gap during which NASA had to pay to fly people aboard Russia's Soyuz rocket.

  • That type of gap is unacceptable for the end of the space station, according to Phil McAlister, NASA's director of commercial spaceflight.
  • "We think [a gap] would decimate both the crew and cargo capabilities that we helped develop, and it would also decimate all the research that we've been able to accomplish during the 20 years of continuous presence on the ISS," McAlister told me.

The stakes: If NASA is unable to continue sending their astronauts to a space station, it could affect the space agency's plans for exploration in the future.

  • NASA hopes to send astronauts to the Moon in 2024, with more lunar missions to come after and then Mars sometime after that. But it would also be beneficial for the space agency to have astronauts in low-Earth orbit to gain experience before going to a far-off destination.
  • "Maintaining that presence in low-Earth orbit allows us and our partners to have a robust number of astronauts ... and gain knowledge in terms of how the human body reacts in the long term [to spaceflight], and that's something that we can only do in lower Earth orbit," Mike Gold of Redwire Space told me.
  • The space agency also wants to maintain a human presence in low-Earth orbit in part to retain its position as a foremost space power as China works to build its own space station and also aims to eventually put people on the Moon.

Yes, but: It's not clear whether Congress will fund NASA's plan to help support industry development of low-Earth orbit.

  • NASA requested $150 million for its commercialization of low-Earth orbit for fiscal year 2021 but only got $17 million appropriated from Congress.
  • It also still isn't clear what kind of demand there will be for these space stations aside from governments in the future, though some have suggested specialized pharmaceuticals or tech products could be manufactured in weightlessness.

What to watch: NASA already has a deal with Axiom Space to fly a module to the ISS in 2024, as the first stage in the company's plans to eventually operate its own commercial space station.

  • "So NASA has got to make mods to the International Space Station for us to get there, and we have to build our modules," Mike Suffredini, CEO of Axiom, told me. "The other half of that question is whether NASA is going to be ready."

2. New requirements for FAA astronaut wings

The Blue Origin New Shepard takes flight. Photo: Blue Origin

The FAA updated its requirements for who qualifies for commercial astronaut wings.

Why it matters: As more people fly to space in the coming years with companies like Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic, having some clarity about who counts as a commercial astronaut could help customers weigh the risks versus rewards of flying.

Catch up quick: Previously, to qualify for FAA commercial astronaut wings, a person needed to count as a crewmember — not a passenger or participant — on an FAA-licensed flight that took them at least 50 miles above the Earth. (NASA has a different definition of who qualifies as one of the agency's astronauts.)

  • The updated rules still include those requirements, but the FAA has also added that to qualify for wings, an applicant also needs to demonstrate "activities during flight that were essential to public safety, or contributed to human space flight safety," according to the new order.
  • The FAA also added the option of qualifying for honorary wings for "individuals whose contribution to commercial human space flight merits special recognition," but may not meet the other requirements.

What to watch: It's not clear exactly who will qualify for FAA commercial astronaut wings among the people who flew on suborbital flights with Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson in the past two weeks.

  • Both companies did award their own wings to those who flew with them to memorialize their flights.

Yes, but: The most basic definition of "astronaut" is really just anyone who flies to space.

  • "The FAA does not decide who is an astronaut. Nor does the U.S. government," says space historian Robert Pearlman. "FAA Commercial Astronaut wings are just that, wings for commercial astronauts. You can be an astronaut and not be a commercial astronaut."

3. Perseverance gets busy on Mars

Mars seen by Perseverance. Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASU/MSSS

NASA's Perseverance rover on Mars is about to collect its first rock sample from the Red Planet.

Why it matters: The space agency wants to send a future mission to collect that sample and others Perseverance caches for a return to Earth where they can be analyzed by high-powered tools.

Details: Some of these samples are expected to be chosen because they may contain preserved signs of ancient life within them, but this first sample likely won't.

  • "While the rocks located in this geologic unit are not great time capsules for organics, we believe they have been around since the formation of Jezero Crater and [will be] incredibly valuable to fill gaps in our geologic understanding of this region — things we’ll desperately need to know if we find life once existed on Mars," Perseverance project scientist Ken Farley, of Caltech, said in a statement.
  • NASA expects Perseverance will collect its sample within the next couple of weeks and it will do some reconnaissance work to make sure the rover is gathering exactly the kind of sample scientists are hoping for on this first go.

How it works: As part of Perseverance’s survey of the area, the rover will take detailed images so that mission managers can pick a geological target similar to the one they want to sample and use it as additional data for studying the sample they extract.

  • “The idea is to get valuable data on the rock we are about to sample by finding its geologic twin and performing detailed in situ analysis,” Vivian Sun, of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said in the statement.
  • Once survey and analysis are done, Perseverance will take a Martian day to charge its battery and then collect and store the sample.

4. Blue Origin's moonshot


Jeff Bezos is offering NASA $2 billion in incentives if the space agency awards his company Blue Origin a contract to build a human lunar lander.

Why it matters: NASA is working to send people to the Moon by 2024 and a privately built, human-rated lander is a huge part of that goal.

Catch up quick: The space agency awarded SpaceX the sole contract to build the lander in April, beating out Blue Origin and another company, Dynetics.

  • The sole award also surprised the space industry, which was initially expecting NASA would pick two companies to continue on with the development of their landers.
  • The agency cited budget concerns for the reason they only went with SpaceX.
  • Blue Origin and Dynetics both filed protests with the Government Accountability Office that the GAO is required to respond to by early August.

What's happening: Bezos' offer is the company's latest bid to disrupt that contract award and make it back into the running to provide a lunar lander to NASA.

  • Blue Origin is specifically offering to waive payments up to $2 billion over the next two fiscal years to get the human lander system program “back on track,” according to a letter Bezos wrote NASA administrator Bill Nelson.
  • "This offer is not a deferral, but is an outright and permanent waiver of those payments," the letter says. "This offer provides time for government appropriation actions to catch up."

The big picture: Many see picking more than one provider as essential for NASA as it shoots for the Moon.

  • These systems are difficult to develop, and just relying on one contractor could open up the space agency to major deadline issues if its sole provider gets mired in technical challenges.

5. Out of this world reading list

Illustration: Megan Robinson/Axios

NASA detects water vapor on Jupiter's Ganymede — the largest moon in the solar system (Sophie Lewis, CBS News)

NASA investigates renaming James Webb telescope (Alexandra Witze, Nature)

Bezos beats Branson in space billionaires' battle for attention (Neal Rothschild and Sara Fischer, Axios)

Movements on Mars unlock the Red Planet's interior (Alison Snyder, Axios)

Space business gets billionaire boost (Hope King, Axios)

6. Weekly dose of awe: Apollo 15 at 50 years

Photo: NASA

It has been 50 years since Apollo 15 launched on a mission to the surface of the Moon, but before NASA astronauts David Scott, Alfred Warden and James Irwin took flight, they had a good breakfast.

  • As many astronauts do, it looks like the Apollo 15 crew had steak and eggs for their last full meal on Earth before heading to the Moon.
  • With more people — including relatively normal folks — flying to space in the future, it'll be interesting to see what new kinds of food traditions develop ahead of flights.

Big thanks to Alison Snyder, Sam Baker and Sheryl Miller for editing this week’s edition. If this newsletter was forwarded to you, subscribe here. 🔭