How to Watch William Shatner Boldly Go Where No Shatner Has Gone Before

Should all go according to plan, Shatner, 90, will become the oldest person to travel in space, even if it’s just for a few minutes. The current record belongs to 82-year-old Wally Funk, who set the mark earlier this year during the same flight that took Jeff Bezos to space. That said, NASA astronaut John Glenn flew to space aboard the Space Shuttle at the age of 77, which still makes him the oldest astronaut according to the FAA’s definition of the term (tl;dr: to be an astronaut you actually have to do something while in space, aside from gawking at the view).

After it was announced that Shatner was joining the NS-18 flight, the actor admitted to being terrified. Speaking to reporters earlier this week, Shatner said he’s now feeling “comfortable, but also a bit uncomfortable.” Age, he said, won’t be a factor, aside from having to get in and out the seats both before and after launch.

“So unless you’re really supple, getting in and out of the seats…when we’re in gravity, is a chore,” Shatner said. “But of course it’s designed [for us] to float out of the seat, in weightlessness.” Shatner is most looking forward to being in weightlessness, as everything after that “should be all right.” To which he added: “And we’ll have that moment of inspiration, which I feel will be there when we’re looking into the vastness of the universe.”

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William Shatner touring the launch tower with Blue Origin’s Sarah Knights at Launch Site One in west Texas.

William Shatner touring the launch tower with Blue Origin’s Sarah Knights at Launch Site One in west Texas.
Image: Blue Origin

Following the few minutes of weightlessness, Shatner and his crewmates will return to their seats and buckle up in preparation for re-entry. The capsule will descend with parachute assist and make a soft landing in the desert. The whole thing will last no longer than around 15 minutes.

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NS-18 is poised to be just the second crewed flight of New Shephard. On July 20, Blue Origin successfully sent company founder Jeff Bezos, along with three others, to beyond the Kármán line—the threshold of space according to the International Aeronautical Federation. Flying at a maximum altitude of around 66 miles (106 km), Shatner will be joined by Chris Boshuizen, a former NASA engineer and co-founder of Planet Labs, Glen de Vries, the vice-chair of life sciences and health care at French software company Dassault Systèmes, and Audrey Powers, Blue Origin’s vice president of mission and flight operations and a former flight controller with NASA.

For Bezos, the Shatner flight is serving as a timely distraction. Blue Origin was recently accused of fostering sexism at the workplace and pushing employees to their limits. Claims that the company has been favoring rapid deployment over safety concerns have now led to an FAA investigation. Blue Origin is also embroiled in a legal battle with NASA over a lunar lander contract that the company believes was unfairly awarded to SpaceX.

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World View to Charge $50,000 for Epic Balloon Rides to the Stratosphere

“At 100,000 feet you have a spectacular panoramic view of Earth’s surface. With this wide-angle view, you will clearly see the curvature of Earth and the ‘thin blue line’ of Earth’s atmosphere,” according to the company FAQ. “Also, because you will be higher than the thickest parts of the atmosphere, you will be enveloped in the darkness of space. Your horizon will stretch into the distance more than 1,000 miles in every direction. “ 

A generally agreed-upon boundary for space is the Kármán Line, which is located 62 miles (100 km) above sea level. World View’s balloon will go nowhere near space, but that’s not preventing the company from fitting its offering into the space tourism sector. That said, World View isn’t really trying to compete with the bona fide space tourism ventures, namely Virgin Galactic, Blue Origin, and SpaceX. It would be more accurate to say that, to a certain extent, World View is trying to step on their toes.

For one, World View plans to charge $50,000 per person, a cost that “is noticeably lower than any other civilian space tourism flight available today,” according to the company. Again, not space, but okay. That’s still a lot of money, but it pales in comparison to the expected $25 million ticket price for a ride aboard SpaceX’s CrewDragon. At auction, Blue Origin sold a seat for $28 million, while Virgin Galactic plans to charge $450,000. In its statement, World View said it would provide flexible financing options for its customers, and it’s currently accepting $500 deposits. The $50,000 price tag is akin to buying a very expensive car, and a lot of people might find this experience to be worth it.

Time is another advantage, as flights to the stratosphere will last six to 12 hours. This will allow the eight passengers and two crew members to hang out, enjoy the view, and even partake in libations—without the thrill zero gravity, however. The capsule will include a bathroom, which is good news for those hoping to join the very exclusive 19-mile-high club.

World View wants to initially launch its balloons from the Grand Canyon, but the company has ambitions to include other stunning departure points, including the Great Barrier Reef in Australia, the Serengeti in Kenya, the Amazon in Brazil, the Giza Pyramids in Egypt, and the Great Wall of China in Mongolia. Those are great, but an ascent with a view of the Aurora Borealis in Norway is, in my estimation, the most spectacular of the planned offerings.

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Another advantage has to do with physical accessibility. A violent, high-acceleration rocket launch would be replaced by a gentle lift to the stratosphere and a soft landing on the ground. Services animals will also be permitted to join the flight.

The company says it has many safety measures in place:

From the design of the spaceflight capsule to the helium-filled zero-pressure balloon flight system and the patented parafoil landing system, safety at every step is our primary objective. We have also designed several redundant safety measures if any of the primary safety measures malfunction during flight. For instance, if the parafoil system fails during landing, we also have a backup parachute system that would be deployed to gently slow and land the capsule.  […]

For many years, World View flights have used high-altitude zero-pressure balloons, which means that the pressure inside the balloon is equal to the pressure outside the balloon. In the event of a puncture, leak or hole, the balloon would not “pop” and cause a sudden freefall. Instead, the outcome would be very benign: helium would slowly leak out of the balloon and the balloon and capsule would eventually start to slowly lose altitude. Even if there was a large tear in the balloon, it would take several hours for the balloon to slowly float to the ground. Additionally, because World View balloons are filled with helium, a safe, non-flammable gas, we eliminate the risk of explosion.    

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The company is still finalizing its design, and it needs to obtain a license from the Federal Aviation Administration. Speaking to SpaceNews, Ryan Hartman, chief executive of World View, said the company would ideally like to perform 100 launches a year, but that’ll depend on the launch points and local weather conditions. The inaugural flight could happen in 2024, which has already been chartered by the not-for-profit group Space For Humanity.

All this said, World View may have some company up there in the stratosphere. Space Perspective, a company owned by Jane Poynter and Taber MacCallum—both co-founders of World View—is currently working on a similar offering, though with a price tag closer to $125,000 per passenger.

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More: Malfunctioning Toilet Triggered an Alarm During SpaceX’s Inspiration4 Mission

What to Know About the Film Crew Shooting the First Movie in Space This Week

The spacecraft should reach the ISS three hours and 17 minutes after launch, which is pretty fast, as far as these things go. Shkaplerov will join the Expedition 66 crew and stay until March of next year, while Shipenko and Peresild will stay on the ISS for at least 12 days, with a tentative return scheduled for October 17.

The filmmakers are hoping to amass between 35 and 40 minutes of footage during their brief stay. Peresild will portray Zhenya—an operating surgeon who has just one month to prepare for a flight to the ISS, where she will attempt to save an ailing cosmonaut’s life. She was chosen for the role following an open competition and after successfully completing physical and medical exams. Runner-up Alyona Mordovina is serving as the backup actress for the mission. Novitsky will play the role of the cosmonaut who needs medical assistance, according to Russia’s state-run TASS news agency.

Using the ISS as a film set is guaranteed to provide an authentic sense of what it’s like to live and work in space. The closest precedent to this is Apollo 13, in which the microgravity scenes were shot inside NASA’s KC-135 aircraft, which is famously known as the “vomit comet.” Because stints of weightlessness were limited to 25 seconds, the cast and crew had to perform 612 flight parabolas to capture the required footage. Needless to say, this won’t be an issue on the ISS, where microgravity is in abundance.

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Actress Yulia Peresild, commander Anton Shkaplerov, and film director Klim Shipenko.

Actress Yulia Peresild, commander Anton Shkaplerov, and film director Klim Shipenko.
Image: Channel One Russia

For the past several months, the film crew has been preparing at the Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center facility at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.

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“We underwent an accelerated course of many important elements that the cosmonauts study over many years. We tried to master them in four months. Of course, this is very fast. We had a lot of theory, practice, endurance, sports—everything imaginable,” Shipenko told TASS. The point, he said, was to not attain the training of a full-fledged cosmonaut, but “to prepare as a participant of a space flight.”

As part of their training, the film crew, along with their respective backups, studied the design of the Soyuz spacecraft and the Russian segment of the ISS. They also received emergency response training, which included simulated water landings and weightlessness training aboard a zero-g aircraft. As TASS reports, Peresild “hadn’t realized how much effort the preparation for the project would require,” but even with hindsight she wouldn’t have given up the opportunity.

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The Roscosmos website describes it as a “scientific and educational project,” but as the Russian space agency admitted last year, the “movie is aimed to popularize Russia’s space activities” and to “glorify [the] cosmonaut profession.” Some Russian scientists and former cosmonauts have complained about the mission, saying the film is diverting resources that could’ve been used elsewhere. As of late August, the producers were still seeking funding for the project.

More: New Cracks on ISS Expose Deteriorating State of Russian Segment.

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Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo Flights Allowed to Resume After FAA Probe

The article alleged that the pilots ignored warning lights during the ascent and that VSS Unity risked a landing at an undesignated runway. What’s more, the article reported that the spaceplane flew outside of its federally mandated airspace for nearly two minutes, a claim the FAA later affirmed. Sources told Nicholas Schmidle, the author of the New Yorker piece, that the safest course of action would’ve been to abort the mission, but instead, the pilots flew at full throttle for the required one full minute, allowing Unity to reach an altitude of 53 miles (86 km) above sea level, which qualifies as space. The spaceplane glided back to its designated runway and successfully landed at Spaceport America in New Mexico. Had the pilots aborted the flight, however, Branson would not have become the first billionaire to reach space (Jeff Bezos of Blue origin achieved the same feat just a few weeks later).

The FAA launched a formal investigation on August 11, during which time Virgin Galactic’s spaceplanes were grounded. Results of the probe showed that Unity “deviated from its assigned airspace on its descent from space,” and that Virgin Galactic “failed to communicate the deviation to the FAA as required,” according to the regulator. Virgin Galactic was subsequently given a list of corrective actions, which it has apparently completed to the FAA’s satisfaction.

Virgin Galactic offered more detail in a statement yesterday. The corrective actions included “updated calculations” to expand protected airspace during future flights, designating a larger flight area to make sure Virgin Galactic “has ample protected airspace for a variety of possible flight trajectories during spaceflight missions,” along with steps to “ensure real-time mission notifications to FAA Air Traffic Control.”

“We appreciate the FAA’s thorough review of this inquiry,” Michael Colglazier, Virgin Galactic CEO, said in the statement. “Our test flight program is specifically designed to continually improve our processes and procedures.” To which he added: “The updates to our airspace and real-time mission notification protocols will strengthen our preparations as we move closer to the commercial launch of our spaceflight experience.”

Colglazier said Virgin Galactic is committed to safety at every level, but the company, with its history of tragedy and near-misses, PR fakery, and claims of a deteriorating safety culture, would suggest otherwise. This latest incident, I’m afraid to say, may not be the last for this aspiring space tourism venture.

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Virgin Galactic’s next flight to suborbital space, designated the Unity 23 mission, was supposed to happen in early or mid-October, and we now await an official launch date. As we learned in August, however, this will be the last flight before the company performs inspections and tests of all its vehicles. Commercial flights of SpaceShipTwo are not expected until 2022.

SpaceX’s Surprisingly Secretive Inspiration4 Mission Is a Major Letdown

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A short video of the Dragon Cupola—a glass dome from which the crew can view their surroundings—was also released on Thursday, and today we were blessed with four photos showing the crew inside the Crew Dragon.

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There’s also a tweet from Inspiration4 confirming that the crew answered questions from patients at St. Jude, but no video or transcript of the session was provided. The crew released its in-orbit Spotify playlist and also spoke to Musk, which good for them, but who the hell cares. Oh, we’ve also learned that Isaacman did some sports betting from space and that he won a bit of money, which he will donate to charity. Gotta say, sports betting was not quite what I was expecting from this mission, and it’s sad to think this is among the few morsels of information we’ve been given.

After reaching out to both SpaceX and Inspiration4 for more information, a PR firm representing the mission responded: “We won’t be capturing live, but will continue to share assets and updates as they are sent down to us,” and that I should just follow updates on the Inspiration4 website. On that last point, the news section of the Inspiration4 website hasn’t been updated since the launch on Wednesday.

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Looking around the web, it’s clear that other publications are experiencing similar frustrations.

“Not much information has been released since launch about the activities of the crew, who are the subject of an exclusive Netflix documentary,” writes the BBC. On the chat with Musk, Spaceflight Now’s William Harwood said there was “no immediate word on what they talked about or any details about the progress of the historic mission.” To which he added: “Unlike NASA space flights, in which space-to-ground communications between astronauts and flight controllers are carried out in the open, there has been no public radio traffic with the Inspiration4 crew and no downlinked photographs or video since reaching orbit Wednesday after launch from the Kennedy Space Center.” Harwood’s article came out before the release of the four new pics, but his point still stands.

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And it’s not as if there’s nothing to cover. The crew isn’t just floating around the capsule—they’re supposedly eating cold pizza, playing the ukulele, taking in spectacular views of Earth and space, and performing a trove of health-related science experiments. I was very much hoping to watch all of this, and while it was happening.

Alas, we come to the likely reason for the silent treatment: the aforementioned Netflix docuseries. The crew is spending a good portion of its time in space collecting video for the fifth and final episode of the series, which probably explains why we’re seeing so little. They’ve gotta keep all the good stuff under wraps, put it through the production wringer, and then package it all up for the public at a future date—that date being September 30. What makes this particularly frustrating is that Netflix promised to cover the mission in “near real-time,” and I don’t believe that’s happening.

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Some of you may quibble, saying I need to be patient and that I’ll get to see all the good stuff in due time. But for me, it’s not the same thing. I was hoping to connect with this interesting crew as the mission was happening, but instead we’re being blacked out. And that sucks.

Update: SpaceX tweeted this afternoon that the crew will provide a live update this evening, which is a welcome development.

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More: Smoke detector triggers alarm in Russian segment of the International Space Station.

How to Watch SpaceX’s Inspiration4 Launch—the First All-Civilian Mission to Earth Orbit

There’s a 70% chance that weather conditions will be favorable for today’s launch. Should it be scrubbed for whatever reason, SpaceX will try again tomorrow (Thursday, September 16) at the same time.

A Netflix-produced warm-up show will begin at 7:00 p.m. EDT (11:00 p.m. UTC). The live YouTube special is being hosted by Queer Eye’s Karamo Brown and journalist Soledad O’Brien, and it’ll feature a host of celebrity appearances. The ongoing Netflix series Countdown: Inspiration4 Mission to Space has been following the training of the crew, with episodes one through four already streaming. The fifth and final installment will premiere in late September.

Isaacman, the billionaire founder and CEO of Shift4 Payments, will command the mission, while Proctor, a geoscience teacher, will serve as pilot. Arceneaux, a pediatric cancer survivor, will be the first person to go to space with a prosthetic body part and the youngest American to orbit Earth. Sembroski is an Air Force veteran and aerospace engineer. Operation of the Crew Dragon is autonomous, so the crew won’t be expected to do any actual piloting.

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SpaceX is aiming to deliver the Crew Dragon to an altitude of 357 miles (575 km), which is higher than both the Hubble Space Telescope and the International Space Station. The crew will view Earth from the Dragon Cupola—the “largest contiguous space window ever flown,” according to SpaceX. The Elon Musk-led company says the three-layer observation dome was “extensively tested and qualified for flight” and it replaces the mechanism used by Crew Dragon for docking to the ISS.

Inspiration4 crewmember Jared Isaacman peering out from the Dragon Cupola.

Inspiration4 crewmember Jared Isaacman peering out from the Dragon Cupola.
Image: Inspiration4/SpaceX

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In addition to looking out the window and experiencing weightlessness, the crew will perform a number of health-related scientific experiments. Once the three-day trip to space is over, the Crew Dragon will perform a re-entry through Earth’s atmosphere and make a parachute-assisted splashdown at one of several possible locations along Florida’s east coast.

The Inspiration4 crew: Chris Sembroski, Sian Proctor, Jared Isaacman, and Hayley Arceneaux.

The Inspiration4 crew: Chris Sembroski, Sian Proctor, Jared Isaacman, and Hayley Arceneaux.
Image: Inspiration4/SpaceX

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A major goal of the Inspiration4 mission is to raise $200 million for St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital, and that’s undeniably a great cause. For SpaceX, however, the mission represents its first foray into space tourism, in which some seriously big money is up for grabs. Isaacman paid an undisclosed amount for all four seats (Arceneaux was handpicked by Isaacman, and both Proctor and Sembroski won contests to take part). SpaceX will reportedly charge $50 million per seat for future private missions.

I’m very much looking forward to following today’s scheduled launch and the events of the coming three days, but at no point will I kid myself into believing the naive narrative that’s floating around this mission—that trips to space will soon be available to the rest of us.

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Steve Wozniak Appears to Be Launching a Space Garbage Company

Steve Wozniak Announces Privateer, a New Space Company

If your knee-jerk reaction is whyyy, Woz??!?!?, it looks like he’s not jockeying for space rule alongside Elon Musk, Richard Branson, and Jeff Bezos. It seems, instead, that he plans to take out space trash; an August press release for an unrelated 3D titanium alloy printer described Privateer as a “new satellite company focused on monitoring and cleaning up objects in space.”

Woz would be doing those guys a favor. Space has become a dumping ground for dead satellites and launch vehicle rockets, so much so that in 2019, NASA called low Earth orbit “the World’s largest garbage dump,” with nearly 6,000 tons of waste. NASA has warned that space junk threatens space-goers with garbage hurtling up to seven times faster than a bullet and reports that even paint flecks have smashed shuttle windows. The agency is currently monitoring 27,000 pieces of larger space junk.

Cleanup will cost money that the U.S. government isn’t allocating. Last year, former NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine urged Congress to fund a $15 million cleanup mission, tweeting: “In the last 2 weeks, there have been 3 high concern potential conjunctions. Debris is getting worse!” The most recent space funding bill, which has passed the Senate, hasn’t set aside those funds but directs the Office of Science and Technology Policy to evaluate the situation. (Conversation around that bill predominantly focused on Blue Origin’s campaign to write itself a $10 billion check for government contracts to compete with SpaceX.)

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Surprising delights fill the space junk waste management space. Lasers! Space claws! Tentacles! The UK and Japan government-funded space company Astroscale has already begun testing magnetic docking systems that would tow future space junk and use the Earth’s atmosphere as an incinerator. (Although clients would need to build in corresponding docking plates before launching crafts.)

Former NASA scientist Donald Kessler famously predicted in 1978 that the densifying minefield will grow exponentially more dangerous for decades to come, as future collisions erupt in more junk. Last year, he told Scientific American that space is “long overdue” for catastrophe.

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Billionaire Grounded

FAA Grounds Virgin Galactic Spaceplanes Pending Investigation Into July 11 Flight

Mark Stucky, former flight test director for Virgin Galactic, claims this is balderdash. The “facts are the pilots failed to trim to achieve the proper pitch rate, the winds were well within limits, they did nothing of substance to address the trajectory error, & entered Class A airspace without authorization,” as he tweeted on September 1. Stucky was fired shortly after the Unity 22 mission after publicly expressing concerns over Virgin Galactic’s safety practices.

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And now we eagerly await the results of the FAA investigation. But I have to think, the FAA is probably not loving that the pilots blew past the warning lights and as a result wantonly ventured out of mandated airspace. That Virgin Galactic is taking paying customers to the edge of space will also likely factor into the FAA probe. As for the future of this space tourism offering, this incident, the ensuing investigation, and claims of a deteriorating safety culture at Virgin Galactic mean paying customers might want to think twice about taking a ride on a Richard Branson-built spaceship.

More: China’s concept for a Martian helicopter seems awfully familiar.

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Jeff Bezos Dick Rocket Goes on Sale for $69 in Scale Model Form

Jeff Bezos Dick Rocket Goes on Sale for $69 in Scale Model Form

“Estes is proud to partner with Blue Origin to provide a piece of history that inspires kids to dream and imagine. The ready to fly New Shepard model is a perfect addition to your office shelf or launch it to recreate the spaceflight for yourself!” the company’s website explains.

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The Blue Origin rocket doesn’t officially go on sale until November but pre-orders are available now. There’s a limit of five per customers, which probably means they’re expecting huge demand for this one. If you’re looking to get one by Christmas it’s probably best to get in now, if we had to guess. These pecker rockets are going to be flying off the shelves.

Every rocket will include a postcard from Bezos’s organization, the Club For the Future, where people can send in their own vision of the future. The postcards will be taken aboard a Blue Origin flight and returned to the sender with the message “Flown to Space” stamped on it, according to a press release.

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Penis. It looks like a penis.

Space Company Owned by Hypocritical Billionaire Sues NASA Over Lunar Lander Contract

Elon Musk has responded in kind. Earlier this month, the SpaceX CEO tweeted an unflattering photo showing a deflated mock-up of the Blue Origin lunar lander.

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And now Blue Origin is taking NASA to federal court. The company argues that the “issues identified in this procurement and its outcomes must be addressed to restore fairness, create competition, and ensure a safe return to the Moon for America,” according to the Blue Origin spokesperson. Further details about the lawsuit were not provided. The suit was filed on Friday, August 13 in the Court of Federal Claims, and Blue Origin was granted a protective order to “protect confidential, proprietary, and source selection information” on August 16, as SpaceNews reports.

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NASA said it’s aware of the lawsuit and is “currently reviewing details of the case,” as the agency explained in a statement.

Bezos’s ruthlessness, cynicism, hypocrisy, however one wishes to describe it, is on full display here. As SpacePolicyOnline points out, Bezos has previously spoken on this exact subject—companies suing NASA for lost contracts—and how this serves to hinder progress. Here’s what Bezos had to say in 2019 when speaking at the JFK Space Summit:

To the degree that big NASA programs become seen as jobs programs and that they have to be distributed to the right states where the right Senators live, and so on. That is going to change the objective. Now your objective is not to, you know, whatever it is, to get a man to the moon or a woman to the moon, but instead to get a woman to the moon while preserving X number of jobs in my district. That is a complexifier, and not a healthy one…[…]

Today, there would be, you know, three protests, and the losers would sue the federal government because they didn’t win. It’s interesting, but the thing that slows things down is procurement. It’s become the bigger bottleneck than the technology, which I know for a fact for all the well meaning people at NASA is frustrating.

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A frustrated Jeff Bezos, it would seem, is deliberately working to frustrate the “well meaning people at NASA,” and slow things down. And indeed, it’s very possible that this suit, like the GAO protest, which temporarily halted the HLS project, will once again result in delays. Landing Americans on the Moon in 2024 seems increasingly unrealistic with each passing day. To further complicate matters, NASA likely won’t have its next-generation spacesuit ready until 2025, and its upcoming SLS rocket has yet to launch.

All this bluster from Blue Origin is a bit perplexing, given that a second contract for a lunar lander is all but inevitable. NASA has made it clear that it wants multiple landing platforms and that this is fundamental to its long-term goals on the Moon.

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At SpaceX, it’s business as usual, at least for now. Elon Musk’s company recently stacked its Starship rocket atop a Super Heavy, creating—albeit temporarily—the tallest rocket ever built. Musk said an orbital test flight of this behemoth could happen in a few weeks, pending regulatory approval.

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More: SpaceX Starship stacking produces tallest rocket ever built.