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Watch: NASA needs your help to bring rocks back from Mars


NASA’s decision to scrap its $11 billion, 15-year mission to Mars to bring back samples could create a startup feeding frenzy, TechCrunch reports. Describing its plans as too slow, and too expensive, NASA is going back to the drawing board, with an eye on getting the space industry to help. Sure, you might worry that NASA can’t manage its own mission on a timeline and budget that it deems acceptable, but the chance for a deluge of dollars to engulf the startups working on making space more accessible could prove a massive boon.

Startups are not all social media apps, enterprise software and NFT-based online games. There are a good number focused on the bits-and-atoms side of the technology fence, even if the idea of building advanced hardware without a software element is all but unthinkable. Ergo, hardware startups are really working both sides of the digital divide at the same time.

But space startups are not worried about it. Looking at recent TechCrunch space headlines, we can see that Dark Space is working on a way to clear space debris; True Anomaly’s working on landing on the moon; Varda Space’s work to manufacture drugs in space and bring them back to Earth seems to work, so it raised $90 million more; Orbital Fab wants to refuel satellites; the list goes on and on.

So, the NASA money might have a bunch of startup-sized buckets to drip into, and I am here for it. Yes, I am a gigantic science-fiction dweeb, but I am still nothing short of dizzy with hype for our future as a species in space. To that end, if any startup that works with NASA on the Mars rock mission needs a human to send up there to check on the dials and such, I’m your guy. Hit play, let’s have some fun!


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TechCrunch Space: Happy eclipse day! | TechCrunch


Hello and welcome back to TechCrunch Space. Happy Eclipse Day for everyone celebrating! I’m fortunate to be living in a part of the country that’s in the path of totality, so I’ll be away from my desk for much of today, soaking it all in.

Want to reach out with a tip? Email Aria at [email protected] or send me a message on Signal at 512-937-3988. You also can send a note to the whole TechCrunch crew at [email protected]For more secure communicationsclick here to contact us, which includes SecureDrop instructions and links to encrypted messaging apps.

Story of the week

NASA has given three space companies the chance to design the next-generation moon buggy — but only one design will go to space. Intuitive Machines, Lunar Outpost and Venturi Astrolab are developing rugged vehicles intended for astronauts to drive around on the lunar surface, from which NASA may choose as early as next year.

The three teams will now enter into a 12-month “feasibility phase” that will culminate in a preliminary design review. At that point, there will be a subsequent competitive request for proposals, where the trio of companies will compete for a demonstration task order. At that point, a final awardee will be selected. The chosen company will be responsible not only for designing the lunar terrain vehicle (LTV) but also for launching and landing it on the moon prior to the Artemis V mission, which is currently slated for no earlier than 2029.

Image Credits: Intuitive Machines

Scoop of the week

Footage obtained by TechCrunch shows the catastrophic ending that Astra’s Rocket 3.0 suffered during prelaunch testing in March 2020.

The explosion, which occurred at Alaska’s Pacific Spaceport Complex, was simply reported as an “anomaly” at the time, an industry term for pretty much any issue that deviates from the expected outcome.

Image Credits: TechCrunch

What we’re reading

Blue Origin announced the crew of the next New Shepard launch — and 90-year-old Ed Dwight is among the names listed. I’m embarrassed to admit that I didn’t recognize the name, but this story over at GeekWire helped fill in the missing pieces to his story and its significance to the history of human spaceflight.

This week in space history

Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space on April 12, 1961. From NASA: “His vehicle, Vostok 1 circled Earth at a speed of 27,400 kilometers per hour with the flight lasting 108 minutes. Vostok’s reentry was controlled by a computer. Unlike the early U.S. human spaceflight programs, Gagarin did not land inside of capsule. Instead, he ejected from the spacecraft and landed by parachute.”

Gagarin on the way to the launch site of Vostok I, April 12, 1961. Image Credits: Sovfoto/Universal Images Group via Getty Images


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Space startups are licking their lips after NASA converts $11B Mars mission into a free-for-all | TechCrunch


NASA Administrator Bill Nelson has pronounced the agency’s $11 billion, 15-year mission to collect and return samples from Mars: insufficient. But the strategy shift could be a huge boon to space startups, to which much of that planned funding will almost certainly be redirected.

“The bottom line is, an $11 billion budget is too expensive, and a 2040 return date is too far away,” Nelson said at a press conference. “We need to look outside the box to find a way ahead that is both affordable and returns samples in a reasonable timeframe.”

In other words, clear the decks and start over — with commercial providers on board from the get-go.

The Mars Sample Return mission was still in the planning stages, but an independent review of the project last year found that, given budget, technology and other constraints, the mission was unlikely to complete before 2040, and at a cost of $8 billion 11 billion. (And like goldfish, projects like these tend to grow to the maximum budget projected.)

Though NASA proposed a revised plan in the mold of the original, it has now also challenged the space community to go further: “NASA soon will solicit architecture proposals from industry that could return samples in the 2030s, and lowers cost, risk, and mission complexity.”

Considering how heavily both primes and space startups have been investing in interplanetary capability, this announcement arguably amounts to a historic windfall. A company like Intuitive Machines, riding high after accomplishing the first private lunar landing, will almost certainly be firing on all cylinders to take on what could be a multi-billion-dollar contract.

Even if NASA wants to assign only half or even a quarter of the original budget to an endeavor led by a commercial space company, private industry has already shown that it can do more with less when compared to legacy outfits.

It’s also catnip for launch companies, since the time horizon is far enough out that heavy launch vehicles like Blue Origin’s New Glenn, Rocket Lab’s Neutron and, of course, SpaceX’s Starship may be cleared to fly when the mission is ready to progress. That was no doubt also the plan with the 2040 timeline, but “2030s” (the notional new one) is a lot closer to the present, and a hamburger today is worth 10 in a decade.

Between the lines can be seen the admission that any mission planned before the present bloom of orbital and interplanetary capability is, very simply, no longer feasible. Although NASA’s troubled Space Launch System heavy launch vehicle is perhaps the largest such project, to abandon it now would be to throw away a great deal, while preemptively opting for a leaner Mars program fueled by commercial ambitions seems to have no obvious downside. (There’s plenty of time to save and repurpose the most important concepts and research already done by NASA and its partners.)

No doubt that many of the companies this decision stands to benefit — not just startups and growing space companies but also primes and launch providers — saw the writing on the wall and have been looking forward to this day. But the official announcement, and the implication that it is the new generation of space companies that will accomplish ambitious goals like a there-and-back trip to Mars, must be very validating.

To be clear, there is no money on the table just yet — but the promise has essentially been made that what would have belonged to the Mars Sample Return mission will be repurposed according to whatever new plan the expansive “NASA community” decides on. Whatever that new plan may be, it will almost certainly rely far more than before on commercial services and hardware.

Just as the Commercial Lunar Payload Services accelerated and incentivized the proliferation of vehicles, spacecraft and landers we see today — including some by companies that didn’t exist a few years ago — the newly recast Mars Sample Return mission may have fired the starting gun on commercial ambitions for the red planet.


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NASA picks 3 teams to design the next generation of moon buggy | TechCrunch


NASA has given three space companies the chance to design the next-generation moon buggy — but only one design will go to space. Intuitive Machines, Lunar Outpost, and Venturi Astrolab are developing rugged vehicles intended for astronauts to drive around on the lunar surface, from which NASA may choose as early as next year.

The three teams will now enter into a 12-month “feasibility phase” that will culminate in a preliminary design review. At that point, there will be a subsequent competitive request for proposals, where the trio of companies will compete for a demonstration task order, NASA officials explained during a press conference on Wednesday.

At that point, a final awardee will be selected. The chosen company will be responsible not only for designing the lunar terrain vehicle (LTV) but also for launching and landing it on the moon prior to the Artemis V mission, which is currently slated for no earlier than 2029.

NASA declined to specify the dollar value of the awards, though Intuitive Machines said in a statement that it was awarded a $30 million contract. The total potential value of all the task orders over the next 13 years is $4.6 billion.

The three teams are also keeping specifications, like range or battery technology, close to the chest, though NASA specified that the rover would have to have an incredible 10-year life span and be capable of carrying two suited astronauts.

Intuitive Machines is leading a team that includes AVL, Boeing, Michelin, and Northrop Grumman; Lunar Outpost is leading the “Lunar Dawn” team that includes Lockheed Martin, General Motors, Goodyear and MDA Space. Astrolab is joined by Axiom Space and Odyssey Space Research.

NASA lunar terrain vehicle. Image Credits: Intuitive Machines

The awards are the latest to be doled out to private industry under the agency’s ambitious Artemis program, which seeks to eventually establish a permanent human presence on the moon. But in order to truly explore the surface, astronauts will need something to get around — and it will need to withstand the harsh environment of the lunar south pole, which is known for temperature extreme swings and very long nights.

“Think of it as a hybrid of the Apollo-style lunar rover that was driven by our astronauts and an uncrewed mobile science platform,” NASA’s Johnson Space Center director Vanessa Wyche said.

With the vehicles, astronauts will be able to transport scientific equipment, collect samples from the surface and travel farther than on foot, Jacob Bleacher, NASA’s chief exploration scientist, said. When astronauts are not on the moon, humans will be able to remotely operate the LTV, so it can continue to explore the region and even meet new astronaut crews when they arrive on the surface.

“With NASA’s Artemis campaign, we are building up the capabilities needed to establish a longer-term exploration and presence of the moon,” he said. “Where it will go, there are no roads. Its mobility will fundamentally change our view of the moon.”


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