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Aïda Amer/Axios. Photo: NASA

United Launch Alliance CEO Tory Bruno believes humanity's push to explore the solar system could one day reduce poverty on Earth.

Why it matters: ULA is the workhorse of the space industry, with a high rate of success for the rockets it flies and big government and commercial contracts. It is well-positioned to one day act as the ride for companies and nations hoping to push farther into deep space.

  • While Bruno's presence in the space industry may not be as flashy as other leaders like Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos, he is an influential figure who will help shape the coming decades of space exploration.

The big picture: Humanity's future in space will hinge on exploring and mining the Moon and possibly other bodies for resources like water, according to Bruno.

  • "At first, it will help us to alleviate poverty here on Earth, but it will also be a great democratization of space where ordinary people are living and working in this cislunar economic region I envision. ... My personal role in all of this is to help make this practical through the transportation system," Bruno told me.

State of play: ULA has had a big year, winning a huge and hard-fought national security contract with the U.S. government that is likely worth billions of dollars through the 2020s.

  • The company is also working to build its new Vulcan Centaur rocket using Blue Origin-built engines to end its reliance on Russian rocket engines.
  • The rocket's first flight could launch as early as next year.

Between the lines: One way to bring about cheaper access to orbit and beyond is by reusing expensive rocket parts instead of effectively discarding them after one flight.

  • After putting Vulcan Centaur through its paces, ULA plans to eventually recover the rocket's engines, not the full booster, in order to make back some of the cost of the rocket.
  • "We're not recovering the full value booster. That's the downside, but the upside is that we get to do it pretty much every time," Bruno said, adding that to land a full booster requires reserving fuel to come back to Earth, but ULA's recovery methods have no such requirement.

Go deeper

Miriam Kramer, author of Space
Dec 8, 2020 - Science

The golden age of space-sample returns

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Multiple space missions by different countries are bringing rock samples back to Earth from far-off worlds — a trend that could redefine our understanding of the evolution of the solar system.

Driving the news: China’s Chang’e-5 spacecraft is bound for Earth and loaded down with Moon rocks expected to be far younger than those brought back during the Apollo missions. Those samples are expected to arrive in mid-December.

Collins helps contractor before pro-Susan PAC gets donation

Sen. Susan Collins during her reelection campaign. Photo: Scott Eisen/Getty Images

A PAC backing Sen. Susan Collins in her high-stakes reelection campaign received $150,000 from an entity linked to the wife of a defense contractor whose firm Collins helped land a federal contract, new public records show.

Why it matters: The executive, Martin Kao of Honolulu, leaned heavily on his political connections to boost his business, federal prosecutors say in an ongoing criminal case against him. The donation linked to Kao was veiled until last week.

How cutting GOP corporate cash could backfire

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Companies pulling back on political donations, particularly to members of Congress who voted against certifying President Biden's election win, could inadvertently push Republicans to embrace their party's rightward fringe.

Why it matters: Scores of corporate PACs have paused, scaled back or entirely abandoned their political giving programs. While designed to distance those companies from events that coincided with this month's deadly siege on the U.S. Capitol, research suggests the moves could actually empower the far-right.

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