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SpaceX and United Launch Alliance prepare back-to-back launches this weekend – CBS News



In a weekend doubleheader, United Launch Alliance and SpaceX are set to launch Atlas 5 and Falcon 9 rockets less than 24 hours apart Saturday and Sunday. The launchings will clear the decks for work to ready another Falcon 9 for flight May 27 on a historic mission to send two astronauts into orbit, the first such launch from U.S. soil in nearly nine years.

Astronauts Douglas Hurley and Robert Behnken, in final training at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, entered a strict medical quarantine Wednesday and plan to fly to the Kennedy Space Center next Wednesday for final preparations, including an on-board dress rehearsal countdown on May 23.

If all goes well, Hurley and Behnken, strapped into a SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule atop a Falcon 9 rocket, will blast off from historic pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center at 4:33 p.m. EDT on May 27, kicking off a long-awaited test flight to the International Space Station.

An Air Force X-37B spaceplane being encapsulated in an Atlas 5 nose cone fairing in preparation for launch Saturday from pad 41 at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.

U.S. Air Force

But first, a United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket, carrying an Air Force X-37B spaceplane, is scheduled for liftoff from nearby pad 41 at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station at 8:24 a.m. Saturday.

Resembling a mini space shuttle, complete with stubby delta wings and a small payload bay, the Boeing-built X-37B can remain in orbit for extended periods before gliding to a runway touchdown. The program’s fifth and most recent flight lasted 779 days.

The Air Force maintains two X-37Bs and it’s not known which vehicle is going up on the current mission. Details are classified, but the Air Force says a new module has been added to the back end of the spacecraft to house experiments, including two NASA studies, a small Air Force Academy satellite and an experimental system designed to beam microwave energy back to Earth.

Assuming the Atlas 5 gets off on time, SpaceX plans to launch its eighth batch of 60 Starlink internet relay satellites Sunday at 3:53 a.m., boosting the company’s orbital constellation to 480. It will be the sixth Starlink launch of 2020 as SpaceX presses ahead with plans to begin offering space-based internet services later this year.

But as always with rocket launches, the weather along Florida’s Space Coast may be a factor. Forecasters are predicting a 60 percent chance of an Atlas 5 delay due to high winds and thick clouds.

Conditions are expected to improve to 80 percent “go” on Sunday. If the Atlas is delayed Saturday, the launch will slip to Sunday and the SpaceX flight from launch complex 40 will, in turn, be delayed to Monday when near ideal conditions are expected.

In any case, launching two orbit-class rockets within 21 hours will mark the fastest turn-around for two U.S. boosters since 1967.

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket’s first stage engines were test fired Wednesday, clearing the way for launch early Sunday from pad 40 at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. The flight will come less than a day after the planned launch Saturday of a United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket from nearby pad 41.

William Harwood/CBS News

Brig. Gen. Douglas Schiess, commander of the 45th Space Wing, said the rapid-fire pace was made possible by the automated fight termination system aboard the Falcon 9. All rockets launched from the United States are required to have self destruct systems, and the Atlas 5 uses a more traditional FTS, one requiring more engineers and technicians on console for launch.

Without an autonomous FTS, the turnaround between two launches would be on the order of 48 hours “because of turning the range around and some of the networks that are not required for autonomous flight safety system,” Schiess said.

In any case, fewer engineers and technicians will be on duty for the weekend launches than usual because of coronavirus personnel restrictions and social distancing protocols.

NASA civil servants at the Kennedy Space Center have been limited to “essential personnel” since mid March and stricter-than-usual policies are in effect for the Crew Dragon astronauts to make sure they are not exposed to COVID-19 or carry it to the space station.

NASA normally would expect hundreds of thousands of spectators to witness a launch of this magnitude, but the agency is not opening the space center for public viewing. In fact, agency managers are urging the public to stay away and watch the launch on the agency’s website or satellite TV system.

As for Behnken and Hurley, “we are following a strict, 14-day quarantine protocol prior to launch for the crew members,” said Phil McAlister, director of commercial spaceflight at NASA Headquarters.

“All personnel that support or interact with the crew during that time period follow that same protocol. … For anyone who’s not following those quarantine protocols, direct interaction with the crew is not permitted without appropriate protective gear, appropriate distancing or a barrier between them and the astronauts.”

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SpaceX opens era of amateur astronauts, cosmic movie sets – EverythingGP



NASA astronaut Nicole Mann, who will test drive Boeing’s space capsule next year, envisions scientists, doctors, poets and reporters lining up for rocket rides.

“I see this as a real possibility,” she said. “You’re going to see low-Earth orbit open up.”

The road to get there has never been so crowded, with Elon Musk’s SpaceX company leading the pack.

A week ago, SpaceX became the first private company to send people into orbit, something accomplished by only three countries in nearly 60 years. The flight to the International Space Station returned astronaut launches to the U.S. after nine long years.

“This is hopefully the first step on a journey toward a civilization on Mars,” an emotional Musk told journalists following liftoff.

Closer in time and space is SpaceX’s involvement in a plan to launch Tom Cruise to the space station to shoot a movie in another year or so. NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine embraces the idea. He wants NASA to be just one of many customers in this new space-travelling era, where private companies own and fly their own spaceships and sell empty seats.

“Kind of a changing of the guard in how we’re going to do human spaceflight in the future,” said Mike Suffredini, a former NASA station program manager who now leads Houston’s Axiom Space company.

Axiom has partnered with SpaceX to launch three customers to the space station in fall 2021. An experienced astronaut will accompany them, serving as the commander-slash-tour guide. Two private flights a year are planned, using completely automated capsules belonging to SpaceX or Boeing, NASA’s two commercial crew providers.

The ticket price — which includes 15 weeks of training and more than a week at the space station — is about $55 million. Besides the three signed up, others have expressed serious interest, Suffredini said.

Since last weekend’s successful launch, “everybody’s starting to wonder where their place in line is,” Suffredini told The Associated Press on Thursday. “That’s a really, really cool position to be in now.”

Space Adventures Inc. of Vienna, Virginia, also has teamed up with SpaceX. Planned for late next year, this five-day-or-so mission would skip the space station and instead orbit two to three times higher for more sweeping views of Earth. The cost: around $35 million. It’s also advertising rides to the space station via Boeing Starliner and Russian Soyuz capsules.

Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin and Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic are taking it slower and lower with tourist flights. These space-skimming, up-and-down flights will last minutes, not days, and cost a lot less. Hundreds already have reservations with Virgin Galactic.

Branson is the only one of the three billionaires planning to launch himself before putting customers aboard at $250,000 a pop. His winged rocketship is designed to drop from a customized plane flying over New Mexico.

Blue Origin’s customers will launch on rockets from West Texas; the capsules sport wall-to-ceiling windows, the largest ever built for a spacecraft.

It’s not just rocket rides that have companies salivating.

Beginning in 2024, Axiom plans to build its own addition to the 260-mile-high (420-kilometre-high) outpost to accommodate its private astronauts. The segment would later be detached and turned into its own free-flying abode.

Space Adventures is marketing flights to the moon — not to land, but buzz it in Russian spacecraft.

The moon — considered the proving ground for the ultimate destination Mars — is where it’s at these days. NASA is pushing to get astronauts back on the lunar surface by 2024 and establish a permanent base there.

Musk’s company recently won contracts to haul cargo to the moon and develop a lunar lander for astronauts.

But the bigger draw for Musk is Mars. It’s why he founded SpaceX 18 years ago — and why he keeps pushing the space envelope.

“I cannot emphasize this enough. This is the thing that we need to do. We must make life sustainably multi planetary. It’s not one planet to the exclusion of another, but to extend life beyond Earth,” Musk said after last weekend’s launch.

“I call upon the public to support this goal,” he added, beckoning to the NASA TV cameras.

To fulfil that vision, SpaceX is using its own money to develop a massive, bullet-shaped steel spacecraft called Starship at the bottom of Texas. Prototypes repeatedly have ruptured and exploded on the test pad, most recently on the eve of the company’s astronaut flight from Florida’s Kennedy Space Center.

NASA’s Bridenstine said space is currently a $400 billion market, including satellites. Opening up spaceflight to paying customers, he said, could expand the market to $1 trillion.

The goal is to drive down launch costs and ramp up innovation, drawing in more people and more business. By NASA’s count, 576 people have flown in space, with only the wealthy few footing their own bill.

The world’s first space tourist, California businessman Dennis Tito, paid a reported $20 million to the Russians to fly to the space station in 2001 — against NASA’s wishes. The Canadian founder of Cirque du Soleil, Guy Laliberte, shelled out $35 million for a Russian ticket in 2009. Space Adventures arranged both deals.

“It really is the billionaire boys’ club,” former space shuttle astronaut Leland Melvin said during last Saturday’s launch broadcast. Once prices drop, he’d consider returning to space, but not without his dogs.

“They’re ready to go, need SpaceX suits for them,” he said.

Once lunar bases are established, the next step will be Mars in the 2030s, according to Bridenstine.

“Those are the kinds of things that inspire the next Elon Musk, the next Jeff Bezos, the next Sir Richard Branson. And that’s what we have to get back to as an agency,” he said.

SpaceX still has to get NASA astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken safely back to Earth this summer in its Dragon capsule. But the company already is looking ahead to the next astronaut crew. Crew mission director Benji Reed got a brief taste of this future as he wrapped up a chat with the astronauts Monday.

“Thank you for flying SpaceX,” he chimed.


The Associated Press Health and Science Department receives support from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Department of Science Education. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

Marcia Dunn, The Associated Press

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Three powers are now capable of launching astronauts into space: Russia, China and Elon Musk – Haaretz



It was from launchpad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center, in Florida, that Neil Armstrong, Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin and Michael Collins lifted off for the moon in 1969. It was from there, too, that the disastrous missions of the space shuttles Challenger in 1986 and Columbia in 2003 took off. But today, nine years after the last mission of the Atlantis space shuttle, only weeds emerge from the scorched asphalt. For nearly a decade, the United States has been left without a human launch system. When it has wanted to send its astronauts to the International Space Station, it has been compelled to buy places on Russia’s Soyuz spacecraft, which were launched from Kazakhstan.

In the meantime, at NASA, they were left wondering what to do with a rusting launch facility. Then, in 2014, the perfect client appeared: the eccentric billionaire engineer Elon Musk, who made his initial fortune from the sale of PayPal. The founder of the electric vehicle company Tesla and of the space exploration company SpaceX, Musk took a 20-year lease on the site. He wasn’t the only tech baron who entered a bid. When Musk’s bid was accepted, Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon and of the aerospace firm Blue Origin, moved quickly to lease the adjacent complex, No. 36, from which the probes were launched to Mars and Venus in the 1960s and 1970s.

Last Saturday, the fire was again ignited at launchpad 39A. NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley blasted off for the ISS in a Dragon capsule. “Launch America” was the name NASA’s PR folks gave the widely covered event. The United States, it was said, had resumed launching astronauts from American soil. In fact, only the soil was U.S. property. The spacecraft, the launcher, the launch devices, even the spacesuits – all are the private property of SpaceX. The appearance of the NASA logo, which was displayed proudly on the spacecraft, was purchased. By the same token, it could have been the Coca-Cola logo that appeared there. Thus, as of the moment when these lines are being written, only three powers in the world have the capacity to launch astronauts into space: Russia, China and Elon Musk.

To understand how this situation came about, we need to go back to 2010. As the end of the space shuttle program approached, the Obama administration decided to shift to outsourcing. Instead of investing government resources in transporting cargo and people into orbit around Earth, NASA would focus on deep space ventures, such as preparation for a manned flight to Mars. As part of the plan, it was decided that NASA would develop the heavy-lift SLS (space launch system) rocket and the Orion spacecraft that would launch on it. At the same time, the federal government would encourage private investors to develop launch systems for near space – moon tourism, for example – and would underwrite trips for its NASA astronauts to the International Space Station.

The new space revolution is deceptive. To an observer on the side it looks as though commercial firms are competing with NASA. Actually, NASA is both the principal investor in the companies and their biggest client. The space agency has funneled more than $8 billion to Boeing and to SpaceX over the past decade, most of it earmarked for the development and production of launchers and spacecraft. The rest of the funds are intended to purchase 12 flights to the International Space Station for NASA – six in Musk’s Dragon and six in Boeing’s Starliner, which is also due for a debut manned launch as early as next year.

NASA is proud of the program: It has led to the development of two independent systems for sending humans into space at half of what that would cost the government. After all, the businesspeople also chipped in with a few dollars. But in the meantime, a few things happened – and a few things didn’t happen. The inauguration of NASA’s SLS has been repeatedly postponed, and the agency’s Orion spacecraft has also not yet lifted off. And China landed rovers on the moon.

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket and Crew Dragon spacecraft lifts off to the International Space Station from NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida, May 30, 2020.

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket and Crew Dragon spacecraft lifts off to the International Space Station from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida, May 30, 2020. Credit: JOE SKIPPER/ Reuters

Launch leader

During the past few years, Beijing has been investing vast sums in an effort to attain American capabilities. Already now it is leading in launches: Last year, of 102 devices launched into space, 34 were Chinese and only 27 were American in origin. This year, China is planning to launch no fewer than 48 satellites, shuttles and other mechanisms, and to leave the West in the stardust. China is eyeing the moon, and there’s concern in the United States that a taikonaut – as the Chinese call their astronauts – will plant the red flag on Earth’s satellite 50 years after the Americans left it – an image that will symbolize a new world order.

Which is why President Donald Trump signed an executive order in his first year in office instructing NASA to land an American on the moon by 2024. Mars was again shunted aside. In March, NASA announced that three companies, including those of Musk and Bezos, would compete for the privilege of bringing America back to the moon. The competitors received development grants totaling $1 billion; early next year we will learn who won the hefty contract. As for NASA’s SLS and Orion projects, they have been put on ice indefinitely. The United States will bel returning to the moon in a private spacecraft.

Actually, the heavy-launch vehicle that sent Armstrong and Aldrin to the moon was built by Boeing, and the capsule in which they landed was a product of the Grumman Corporation. But the U.S. government had purchased those fantastic machines from the manufacturer, the way one buys a car. In contrast, the spacecraft of Musk and Bezos will operate like leased cars. The United States will invest in their development, but in the end they will remain in the garages of Musk and Bezos. At the conclusion of NASA’s contract, the most expensive space assets in the world, which can do what rockets and launchers that were developed by a superpower like the Soviet Union are unable to do, will be in the private and exclusive hands of two super-tycoons.

We got a glimpse into the future of privatized space in 2018, when Musk launched his red Tesla Roadster car into space in a Falcon Heavy launcher test flight. It was a brilliant marketing gimmick: The electric sports car entered into solar orbit while its sound system played David Bowie’s “Starman” in a loop. According to Musk, he wanted to inspire people; according to others, he wanted to boost the value of Tesla shares. Be that as it may, in the coming decade Musk will be capable of sending his car to the moon, to Mars and in fact to every corner of the solar system.

In the meantime, Musk did not hesitate to transport Behnken and Hurley to last weekend’s launch in a Tesla Model X: Millions watched as the NASA astronauts got into that shiny new, Musk-produced car. When the Apollo 8 crew orbited the moon and recited verses from the Book of Genesis, American atheists sued the administration on the grounds that public funds must not be used for religious propaganda. But an advertisement for a car? In Donald Trump’s USA, not a single eyebrow was raised.

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk celebrates after the launch of a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket spacecraft, May 30, 2020.

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk celebrates after the launch of a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket spacecraft, May 30, 2020.Credit: STEVE NESIUS/Reuters

This is just one example of the United States’ growing dependence on the good will of businesspeople. Musk is dreaming of settling a million people on Mars. He has declared that he doesn’t want to be one of the first pioneers to land on the red planet, only to retire there, but who knows what will happen at the moment of truth? Perhaps after his space taxi successfully delivers NASA astronauts to the moon, he will change his mind and decide to launch himself in the inaugural mission to Mars.

That will be his prerogative. Musk is committed to getting NASA astronauts to the moon. He is not committed to getting NASA to Mars as well, even though the same spacecraft, with government financing, is serving both destinations. If Musk or Bezos wish to upstage NASA, they may find themselves competing with the agency. Toward the end of the decade, we might be seeing a completely new type of space race: the United States, China and two tycoons. Who will win?

And, in fact, who is who? Columbus sailed to America (as it turned out) under the Spanish flag. Armstrong flew to the moon under the Stars and Stripes. If the first flags to be planted in the soil of Mars are those of Tesla or Amazon, will it mean that “the Americans” got there first?

From the public-opinion perspective, the boisterous competition between Musk and Bezos is no less interesting than the contest between the world’s great powers. Will the landing by one corporation constitute a business and personal victory over the other corporation, or will it be a national triumph reflecting the economic and technological might of their country of origin? And what if Chinese taikonauts in a government-sponsored spacecraft land after them? Will China then be the victor in the international arena?

Reasons for concern

With heavy-lift space vehicles comes heavy responsibility, such as the need to prevent disruptive light pollution (caused both by reflective glare from the craft and by their passing in front of celestial objects) and reducing the man-made space debris that is accumulating in Earth’s atmosphere. In the meantime, Elon Musk is not giving the impression that he’s an especially responsible fellow. In fact, he’s now in the process of launching 13,000 Starlink satellites that will for the first time provide the planet, as well as future Mars settlers, with comprehensive internet service from space, thus doubling the number of active satellites of all companies and countries. This SpaceX project is already creating light pollution that conceals the stars from astronomers, and last year one of Musk’s satellites almost collided with a research satellite of the European Space Agency. Can we trust him to disinfect his spaceship of earthly bacteria before the Mars launch in order to prevent interplanetary biological pollution?

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Of course, heavy-lift launchers also accord many rights. Whoever controls the means to launch people into space decides who will fly. Until now, that decision was in American and Russian hands. For example, it was the United States that invited the late Israeli astronaut Ilan Ramon to join a space mission, within the framework of its special relationship with Israel. The United States has never invited an Iranian or a Chinese astronaut.

For his part, Bezos, whose vast fortune apparently spares him the need to be a media star like Musk, dreams of settling billions of people on space stations orbiting Earth. Whom will he invite? And who will he not invite? Corporations, like states, have enemies. The Chinese retail giant Alibaba is an Amazon competitor. Will Bezos agree to have Alibaba deliver packages to his colony? Or perhaps Musk will invite Alibaba founder Jack Ma to be the first tourist to do a Venus flyover, simply to rile Bezos, his space nemesis?

One thing is certain: There’s money to be made in space. Lots of money. NASA’s current administrator, James Bridenstine, estimates that the space economy is already generating revenues of $383 billion a year. If space were a country, its GNP would be higher than Israel’s. But with all due respect to satellites, the true potential of space lies in tourism and in mining minerals from asteroids or the moon. Those markets were off-limits all these years because of the staggering initial capital investment needed to reach them. Now, with the aid of government subsidies, businesspeople have developed the infrastructure to expand into both near and deep space. And to judge by the way they conduct business on Earth, they will go about it mercilessly.

In 2018, Amazon earned $11 billion and didn’t pay even one dollar in income tax. About 10 percent of the warehouse staff employed in the U.S. by Bezos – the world’s richest man – need government assistance to buy food, a higher percentage even than the hamburger flippers in McDonald’s. Some of them have to urinate into plastic bottles, for fear of the consequences if they waste time on toilet breaks. This rapaciousness is unlikely to stop in the far reaches of the universe. And it’s Bezos who is selling Amazon shares for billions every year just to enter the game. Musk has also gotten down to serious work and has already established himself as a global monopoly in the realm of commercial space launches, garnering 65 percent of all international contracts. In the first quarter of 2020, even before the successful flight of Dragon, he launched more kilograms into space than China, Russia and Europe combined.

There is no doubt that the engineers of SpaceX and Blue Origin have astonishing technological achievements to their credit. And there is also no doubt that we all want to see a Mars landing in our time. But we have to remember that we are in the meantime privatizing humanity’s interstellar future and placing it in the hands of people who can barely be restrained on Earth.

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The cleanest pocket of air on Earth? It's in the Southern Ocean, between Tasmania and Antarctica –



The cleanest air on Earth lies in a pocket of sky between Tasmania and Antarctica, scientists say.

A team of researchers at Colorado State University conducted a bioaerosol study of the Southern Ocean from Tasmania to Antarctica — the first of its kind — and drew air samples at the marine boundary level, where the atmosphere meets the ocean surface.

“We were able to use the bacteria in the air over the Southern Ocean (SO) as a diagnostic tool to infer key properties of the lower atmosphere,” microbian ecologist Thomas Hill, from Colorado State University, told

Science Alert.

Via modelling and analysis, the team noted that the samples were free of aerosol particles — a sure indicator of human activity, like fossil fuel burning, agriculture and fertilizer production — blown in from other parts of the world. The samples were also split into latitudinal zones, so that the team could observe how the air changed as they moved further south.

Via wind patterns, airborne microorganisms can travel vast distances. However, the bacterial make-up of the samples suggested that the closer they were taken to Antarctica, the cleaner they became. This suggests that aerosols from distant land masses and human activities are not travelling south into Antarctic air.

Instead, the samples appear to be composed of microorganisms from the ocean and little else.

“It suggests that the SO (Southern Ocean) is one of very few places on Earth that has been minimally affected by anthropogenic activities,” Hill said.

The results counter similar studies that were carried out in oceans in the subtropics and the Northern Hemisphere, which concluded that most microbes came from upwind continents.

Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2020

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