SpaceX's Weekend Doubleheader Off to Great Start With Successful Opening

In Brief

Today, SpaceX sent Bulgaria’s first telecommunications satellite into space using a Falcon 9 that’s already been launched before. This is the first of two launches scheduled for the SpaceX weekend doubleheader.

Ready for Launch

After being postponed from its originally scheduled Monday launch, Bulgaria’s first-ever telecommunications satellite is now in orbit. The launch was a success thanks to SpaceX’s Falcon 9 reusable rocket, which blasted off to space on Friday from the Launch Complex of NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

This marks the first part of SpaceX’s first-ever weekend doubleheader, as Elon Musk’s venture space company has scheduled two launches just about 48 hours apart. The launch appeared to go off without a hitch, as this photo taken by a Twitter user John Kraus shows.

Image credit: John Kraus/TwitterImage credit: John Kraus/Twitter

SpaceX used a previously launched rocket to haul BulgariaSat-1 into orbital space. It’s the second time SpaceX has successfully reused a rocket for a launch. The BulgariaSat-1 is the second satellite Bulgaria has in orbit, blasting off almost 36 years after the first.

Bye Bye, Rocket Booster

For his part, SpaceX CEO and founder Elon Musk seemed satisfied with today’s launch, if his tweets were any indication. What may have been even more exciting than watching the Falcon 9 lift off was following its descent back to Earth as it attempted to land on one of SpaceX’s barge platforms. The rocket made a solid thud as it hit the surface of the “Of Course I Still Love You” droneship, which is stationed somewhere in the Atlantic Ocean.

Musk expected the landing wouldn’t be too gentle, adding that the Falcon 9 was going to “experience its highest ever reentry force and heat in today’s launch,” he posted on a tweet before the launch. “Good chance rocket booster doesn’t make it back.”

Fortunately, it was able to make it in one piece — although it may have hit the surface of the platform a little to hard.

The good news was that the crush core, as Musk explained in a reply on the same thread as his initial tweet, would take only a couple of hours to replace:

So, despite a little bumpy landing, overall Friday’s launch was deemed a success. But the excitement is far from over: Sunday will usher in part two of this weekend’s doubleheader, when a payload of 10 satellites for telecommunication company Iridium is expected to launch from the Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.

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Acting administrator of NASA talks Mars, climate change and SpaceX

The acting administrator of NASA says it’s a “very exciting time” in the space industry, with his agency aiming to get a crew to Mars in the 2030s.

Robert M Lightfoot Jr was in Dublin this week to meet space researchers in Trinity and UCD. During the trip, he spoke to Jonathan Healy on The Pat Kenny Show about his agency’s current and future plans.

Mars, it goes without saying, remains the next great goal in space exploration.

Robert explained: “Right now we’re working on trying to get there in the 2030s, with crew. We’re building off what we’re doing in the International Space Station – we’re using that to do research on humans and the technologies we’ll need to go further into space.

“Hopefully in the decade of the 2020s we’ll take those systems out in an area around the mean, so we can really test them out […] before we embark onto the mission to Mars.”

The space industry in the US has grown surprisingly competitive in recent years. Commercial companies such as SpaceX, Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic are all building technologies to help humans travel beyond Earth.

Robert very much welcomes these companies getting involved.

“We do work together,” he observed. “I think there’s a very complementary activity. We think there’s a role for NASA as a government entity, in terms of doing some of those things that are out there a little further.

“We’re using SpaceX today to get to the International Space Station with cargo, and they’re going to be flying our crew soon. It’s an exciting complementary activity between us – it’s a very exciting time to see industry stepping up the way they are.”

He also spoke about the importance of international co-operation, explaining: “Part of my goal today is to be here in Ireland, and meet with some of the students who are hopefully following in our footsteps to take up that mantle along the road.

“[Space exploration] has gotta be a global endeavour. If you think about what we’re trying to do, we’re talking about civilisation-level impacts with the kinds of science we do, with the kind of exploration we do.”

“Our job is to keep people inspired”

The SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, with the Dragon spacecraft onboard, launches from pad 39A at NASA�s Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida. Bill Ingalls / NASA via CNP

The US has drawn international condemnation recently for the Trump administration’s approach to climate change – most notably when the US president announced his intention to withdraw from the Paris Accord.

Where does such an administrative hostility to overwhelming scientific consensus leave NASA – a science organisation whose core objectives include monitoring & reporting on changes to our planet?

Robert explained: “Our job in that arena – and our job continues to be – to provide that data to the decision-makers so they can make decisions what we want to do from a policy perspective.

“The data coming down is real, so we’re very comfortable with the data we’re providing. That’s for us what we should do as a science organisation – to make sure we’re providing the right data.”

He also discussed what many believe is one of the great challenges of space travel – keeping enough people interested in space travel in the first place.

Robert doesn’t seem worried by such concerns, telling Jonathan: “I think it’s kind of written in our DNA as humankind – we want to explore. Think about all the different levels of exploration you can think of in history – whether it’s Mount Everest, whether it’s crossing the Atlantic, whether it’s going around Africa for the first time.”

He spoke about the recent search for people to join NASA’s 2017 astronaut class.

“We had 18,000 people apply for those 12 jobs,” Robert said said. “There’s an excitement to go do that, and I believe one of those people may the one who goes to Mars.

“Our job is to keep people inspired, and I think our missions inspire people.”

Ireland has never sent someone to space, so what would Robert say to anyone young people hoping to become the first Irish astronaut?

“This is the best job you could ever have,” he insisted. “There’s such a depth of understanding and learning that you get working in space.

“I tell kids in the States… ‘we want you to come and join us, because we’re trying to make the impossible possible’ – and there’s nothing better to be part of”.

Innovation of the Week: Fried chicken marketing in space

This artist rendering provided by World View Enterprises shows the World View Voyager balloon carrying a pressurized space capsule that will be transported to the edge of space. The Arizona company says it has successfully completed the first scale test flight of a high-altitude balloon and capsule being developed to take tourists to the edge of space. World View Enterprises of Tucson said Tuesday June 24, 2014 that it launched the flight last week from Roswell, NM. CEO Jane Poynter says the system broke the world record for highest parafoil flight, lifting a payload one-tenth of what is planned for passenger flight to 120,000 feet. (AP Photo/World View Enterprises)

AP Photo/World View Enterprises

An artist’s rendering of the World View Voyager balloon carrying a pressurized space capsule that will be transported to the edge of space.

What is it? A space flight promoting fried chicken

Innovators: World View Enterprises and KFC

What were they thinking? World View Enterprises, an Arizona company, is finishing up development of a celestial balloon called the “stratollite.” A portmanteau of “stratosphere” and “satellite,” it won’t go all the way to space, but it’ll get pretty close. While it should have some scientific value — providing more precise storm warnings — it was designed for a commercial purpose: near-space tourism. And if you’re a commercial enterprise, publicity is pretty important. So when fast food giant KFC called, proposing a tasty piece of cargo on World View’s next demonstration flight — the Zinger, a hand-breaded fried chicken sandwich with lettuce and mayo — World View was happy to oblige.

Did it work? The gimmick has provided plenty of fodder for TV commercials. You may have seen Rob Lowe as a spacesuit-clad Colonel Sanders, offering a zesty take on John F. Kennedy’s 1962 “We choose to go to the moon” speech as an inspired nation looks on. But there is some risk. “Can you actually launch KFC’s world-famous Zinger chicken sandwich into space?,” the colonel asks. “The answer is, we certainly hope so, our entire marketing campaign depends on it.”

Amazon's Bezos disrupts another frontier, with just one tweet

Amazon.com Inc.’s Jeff Bezos has remained largely invisible in the world of philanthropy. That changed last week in a single tweet — followed by 42,000 more.

The tycoon’s request to Twitter — asking how he can best use his wealth to help people “right now” — has set off a frenzy of responses from every corner of the world. They include pleas to support health care, education and loan forgiveness, offbeat appeals to back a leather fetish museum in Chicago, plus snarky demands to reboot favorite TV shows. Even Madonna chimed in, inviting the world’s second-richest man to visit Detroit to engage with charities there.

The unusually public approach bears the stamp of Silicon Valley disruption, and it’s turning heads in a realm that usually enlists consultants and experts to parcel out big-dollar gifts. Seeking ideas on Twitter shows Bezos is acting like a venture capitalist, scouring proposals in the hope of finding a few worthy of investment, says Eileen Heisman, chief executive officer of the National Philanthropic Trust, a charity that manages $4.2 billion on behalf of individual philanthropists.

The crowd-sourcing strategy could signify an expansion of Bezos’ relatively restrained approach to philanthropy. The Bezos Family Foundation, which is best known for its support of children’s education, has been largely funded by his parents from Amazon holdings they acquired as early investors in their son’s enterprise. Outside of that, Bezos and his family’s known donations have totaled about $100 million, including gifts to Princeton University and Seattle’s Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, according to the Chronicle of Philanthropy. That pales in comparison to the billions of dollars donated by Bill Gates and Warren Buffett.

“Everybody has been watching to see when he would get into the philanthropy game, what he would do and then how he would do it,” said Stacy Palmer, editor of the Chronicle of Philanthropy. “Given what he did with Amazon, I don’t think it surprises anybody that he’s doing it in an untraditional way.”

Bezos amassed an $86 billion fortune while building Amazon into the world’s largest online retailer. Just hours after his tweet, he announced the company’s takeover of organic grocer Whole Foods Market Inc., and he’s been tight-lipped since. He hasn’t yet responded to any suggestions, nor has he indicated publicly how much he intends to donate or when it might start. Amazon and the Bezos Family Foundation didn’t respond to requests for comment.

And while legions on Twitter are eager to help him decide, some of his peers are cautioning against the approach. “The most effective philanthropy is targeted,” said Irish billionaire Denis O’Brien, whose Digicel Foundation is the largest builder of schools in the Caribbean. “He will get thousands of replies, but at the end of the day you do things that are strategic and do things that you are interested in. You could be overwhelmed with choices and ideas.”

Other billionaires are more reticent. “Not for me to tell him what to do with his money,” said Leon Cooperman — who has pledged to give away the majority of his $2.3 billion fortune — in response to an email from Bloomberg. Several other wealthy philanthropists contacted for comment didn’t respond or declined to weigh in.

To be sure, other technology entrepreneurs have put twists on philanthropy.

Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan, who pledged to give away 99 percent of their $63 billion stake in the social network, are channeling their efforts with a limited liability company. That gives the couple more flexibility than a traditional foundation; for example, they don’t have to give to charity every year and can make investments and political donations. Sean Parker, who has a $3 billion net worth, is using a cancer research institute he funded to the tune of $250 million to overturn traditional research practices.

“The world is full of pretty stodgy foundations that generally do pretty safe things,” Parker said in a December interview with Bloomberg. “I’d rather see what happens when you do something totally different that’s never been tried.”

Even if Bezos is able to outsource idea generation he will likely need at least some apparatus to make a meaningful impact. Demands on his time already include Amazon, his ownership of the Washington Post, and his funding of space exploration company Blue Origin.

One earlier attempt at crowd-sourcing — via the more traditional venue of a newspaper — made a smaller splash and still required a lot of work. In 2011, billionaire Bill Conway, a co-founder of the Carlyle Group, told a columnist he wanted advice on how to donate at least $1 billion. The response, about 700 emails after a week, required four people to vet. Bezos already has 60 times more to consider.

“I don’t imagine he wants to be physically writing checks all day,” said Emmett Carson, CEO of the Silicon Valley Community Foundation, which manages $8.2 billion in assets and helps philanthropists distribute grants.

Even if Bezos ramps up quickly he’ll have a ways to go to catch up with tech titans before him.

Bill and Melinda Gates have given more than $30 billion of stock and cash since 1994, valued at the time of gift, according to a review of two decades worth of Gates Foundation tax returns, annual reports and regulatory filings. Gates has probably directed more than 700 million Microsoft shares into his foundation, adjusting for stock splits. Those would be worth about $50 billion today had he held onto them, enough to catapult his fortune to $140 billion, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.

Buffett’s charity efforts kicked off in earnest in 2006 and since then he has given about 270 million Berkshire Hathaway Class B shares, worth around $24 billion at the time of the donations, to charities led by the Gates Foundation. Those shares are now worth more than $45 billion, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. The Gates Foundation has given away $36.7 billion and has an endowment of $40.6 billion, Andrew Estrada, a foundation spokesman, said in an email. If Bezos intends to match those kind of numbers it is unlikely he’ll be able to rely solely on crowd-sourcing.

“It’s an overwhelming task that is innovative now but won’t sustain itself long-term because of the resources and time involved in filtering ideas,” said National Philanthropic Trust’s Heisman. “In five years his approach will likely have evolved into something very different, just like Amazon has over and over again.”

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House lawmakers endorse reusable rockets for military purposes

Enlarge / SpaceX launched its first military payload on May 1. Now the US House of Representatives said the military should consider reusable rockets.

The US Congress has begun the “markup” process to consider budget appropriations for fiscal year 2018, and on Thursday, the House subcommittee overseeing Strategic Forces held a hearing for the National Defense Authorization Act. This bill provides funding for the military, including the Air Force, which oversees efforts to launch spy and communications satellites, as well as other national defense payloads.

As part of the process, Arizona Republican Trent Franks offered an amendment that stated the government should move rapidly to evaluate the potential use of reusable space launch vehicles such as those being flown by SpaceX. Co-sponsored by New Jersey Democrat Donald Norcross, the amendment passed on a voice vote.

This represents a remarkable turnaround for SpaceX and the federal government. After filing a lawsuit against the Air Force three years ago for the right to bid on military launch contracts, the California-based company only began flying military payloads for the government in May. Now lawmakers seem to be warming quickly to the company’s vision of low-cost access to space.

During the hearing, Franks said reusable rockets had the potential to enhance the nation’s warfighting capability.

He said:

The US government should fly reusable rockets when it’s safe and makes sense to do so… Reusable rockets are proven. Blue Origin flew a reusable suborbital rocket, and SpaceX has flown reused orbital rockets. Reusability is not inherently less safe, and other countries are moving toward that capability. If savings are to be achieved at reasonable risk, why not use reusable rockets?

The amendment directs the Secretary of Defense to brief the Committee on Armed Services by March 1, 2018 on the department’s plan to evaluate the risks, benefits, costs, and potential cost-savings of the use of reusable launch vehicles for use in national security space missions.

In recent weeks, the US Department of Defense has signaled its openness to commercial spaceflight. Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson recently praised competition in the commercial space industry for bringing down the price of access to space. And just this week,  Gen. John Hyten, the head of US Strategic Command, said the military must embrace risk and be willing to fail when it comes to 21st-century activities in space. Now the US House seems to be coming on board with this approach.