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Op-ed | Peace in the Era of Weaponized Space



We are on the verge of a new era in space security: the age of diverse and highly capable dual-use space systems that can serve both peaceful and anti-satellite (ASAT) purposes. These new systems, such as spacecraft capable of undertaking rendezvous and proximity operations (RPOs), ground-based lasers capable of interacting with space objects, and actions in cyberspace, cannot feasibly be banned; nor should they be, as they promise immense civil and commercial benefits. Instead, we must find ways to maintain peace despite their presence.

“Beijing actively seeks space superiority through space and space attack systems. One notable object is the Shijian-17, a Chinese satellite with a robotic arm. Space-based robotic arm technology could be used in a future system for grappling other satellites.” — U.S. Army Gen. James Dickinson, testifying April 20 before the Senate Armed Services Committee. Credit: DoD photo by EJ Hersom

The steps currently being taken by the United States to mitigate counterspace threats are necessary but they will not alone be sufficient — the next generation of ASAT weapons will pose a much greater threat than current systems, and require tailored responses. We stand, as we did in the 1950s and 1960s, at the brink of poorly understood but potentially catastrophic risks. The solution now is the same as it was then: first, to exploit the United States.’ democratic advantage in untapped intellectual capital; and second, to harness the power of dissent and rigorous contestation to improve predictions, strategic planning, and cost-effective readiness. To that end, the U.S. Department of Defense should establish an open and permanent forum for submission of ideas by all concerned parties, both inside and outside government, and facilitate on-the-record debate regarding their validity and desirability.

Three next-generation ASATs likely to mature during the 2020s — namely rendezvous spacecraft, ground-based lasers, and cyberattacks — illustrate the urgent need for collaboration, critical interrogation of assumptions, and (re-) examination of a wide range of old and new ideas. All three ASAT types can be developed and deployed under the guise of peaceful applications. Each of these threat vectors will, as they advance, enable counterspace operations with substantially greater strategic and operational impact than is currently achievable.

Moreover, all three next-gen ASATs can be used while producing little space debris — a feature clearly important to China, as evidenced by its pivot to non-debris-producing ASAT tests following major international backlash to its 2007 test of a direct-ascent ASAT, namely a ground-launched ballistic missile that generated thousands of pieces of long-lasting space junk when it collided with China’s Fengyun-1C weather satellite.


Rendezvous spacecraft provide an excellent case study in the challenges plaguing the status quo. These spacecraft are inherently dual-use: if a satellite can remove space debris from orbit or grapple a friendly satellite for servicing (e.g., for repair, refueling, or in situ upgrades), then it can likely also grapple an adversary’s satellite to change its orbit or disable it. Since 2018, at least 11 high-level space officials and organizations (including former Vice President Mike Pence, Gen. John Hyten, and Gen. John Raymond) have expressed concerns that such RPO spacecraft could be used to threaten our critical satellites from close range. Gen. James Dickinson, the commander of U.S. Space Command, is one of the latest voices to join this authoritative group, testifying on April 20 before the Senate Armed Services Committee that:

“Beijing actively seeks space superiority through space and space attack systems. One notable object is the Shijian-17, a Chinese satellite with a robotic arm. Space-based robotic arm technology could be used in a future system for grappling other satellites.”

It is good news that U.S. government awareness of the rendezvous threat is growing. However, the signs that it is on the horizon have been there for years (China testing began in 2008, if not earlier) and a decade or more is far too long a lag in threat recognition. Worse yet, noticing a serious threat is merely the first step in a chain of traditionally time-consuming moves — e.g., selecting a solution, developing a concept of operations, programming the acquisition, and deploying the measures — to ready our deterrence and defenses. To adequately deal with emerging threat vectors, the U.S. must greatly expedite these processes.

In addition, the solutions required for many next-gen ASATs must be carefully tailored and crosscutting. Three facets of the rendezvous threat illustrate this particularly well.

First, in 2018, the Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space attempted to establish voluntary “measures for the safe conduct of proximity space operations,” but they were promptly blocked by Russia. This highlights that discussions in decision-by-consensus international forums cannot be relied upon to solve the rendezvous threat unless reinforced by external action. China and Russia have a strong incentive to block any such rules — namely, that they could undercut China and Russia’s ability to hold our critical satellites at risk by positioning rendezvous attackers arbitrarily close to them. There are, however, means by which the U.S. could incentivize agreement and compliance: for example, the U.S. could attach economic incentives (e.g. conditioning market access), or push for the use of lawful countermeasures to enforce international legal obligations such as the Outer Space Treaty’s Article IX requirement of “due regard.” But identifying and implementing the ideal solution will not be easy: this exemplifies an issue on which a range of experts should propose alternatives, debate one another, and synthesize the results.

Second, replacing legacy constellations comprised of small numbers of large and expensive satellites with new proliferated constellations of many small, inexpensive satellites has gathered many proponents as a means of reducing vulnerability. Doing so is indeed necessary, but it cannot adequately counter the rendezvous threat. This is because for certain critical and vulnerable satellites in higher orbits — e.g., SBIRS early missile warning satellites, and AEHF satellites for communications in nuclear-disrupted environment — proliferated constellations are technically infeasible, prohibitively costly, or both. Additionally, as noted by Christopher Scolese, Director of the National Reconnaissance Office, there will be “some number of large [and vulnerable] satellites to address questions that only they can.” Thus, these legacy systems and their similar follow-ons are likely to remain vulnerable well into the 2030s, requiring timely warning and defense mechanisms to keep them safe.

Even GPS is likely to be vulnerable by the late 2020s. Thus far, GPS has been broadly resilient to ASAT attack due to various countermeasures and its redundant design. The GPS constellation consists of about three dozen satellites, each orbiting twice daily, only four of which need to be over a given area at once to sustain service. For this reason, degradation is gradual, not catastrophic: even destroying six satellites at once would only deny service to a localized area for about 95 minutes per day. If, however, one could disable most of the constellation, the result would be near-total loss of GPS services worldwide. While this is largely infeasible with current ASATs, by the late 2020s China may have enough RPO-capable small spacecraft to preposition near every GPS satellite, allowing at-will disablement of the entire constellation. These threats underscore the need to carefully examine each next-generation ASAT individually, in order to identify in advance any unique characteristics which might upend prior assumptions. Doing so is the only way to avoid strategic surprise, and would reveal which threats do (and don’t) deserve priority and how solutions should be designed.

Third, the forum would facilitate serious and open debate regarding what capabilities the U.S. should procure and field, and how to do so in time (likely but a few short years). Most counters to the rendezvous threat, for example, will likely require bodyguard spacecraft to implement. This is feasible: both the U.S. government (e.g. DARPA) and the private sector (e.g. Northrop Grumman) have demonstrated increasingly sophisticated RPO capabilities, including the ability to autonomously dock with a target in GEO and make such spacecraft far smaller and cheaper (e.g. via DARPA’s Blackjack program). Despite these advances, however, the U.S. has yet to develop spacecraft for active defense, much less deploy them, and its handful of RPO-capable spacecraft are 10 times as heavy — and, probably, costly — as those under development by Russia and China. The U.S. must quickly develop and deploy bodyguards comparable in quantity and cost to the potential rendezvous ASATs it faces, or it risks adversaries being able to overwhelm our defenses.


Nor is the need for such a forum limited to rendezvous spacecraft. Two other emergent ASAT threats reveal similar requirements and lack of preparation: ground-based lasers (GBLs) and cyberattacks. As U.S. intelligence agencies including the Defense Intelligence Agency have noted, GBLs will almost certainly become much more capable over the next decade, moving from dazzling or harming sensors to damaging external structures on satellites in LEO. This fundamentally changes the nature of the threat, and requires new solutions — yet, to date, there has been little discussion of such solutions.

Cybersecurity, too, requires swift action and innovative thinking. Many commercial and civilian space systems remain vulnerable. As the U.S. plans to continue increasing military integration with commercial systems, security standards must be improved. Additionally, there is little basis for confidence that military space systems, and particularly their ground segments, are truly cyber-secure now, or that they will remain so going forward.

At the same time, potential adversaries’ cyber capabilities and doctrine are advancing quickly. China’s rapid progress in emerging technology fields could also be a game-changer. One example is Chinese development of quantum communications satellite technology which, as evidenced by the launch of its Micius satellite in 2016, leads all other countries; the result could be that they can hack our space systems but hamstring U.S. response via quantum cryptography.


As these cases highlight, navigating the era of weaponized space will require a meeting of the minds. For this reason, the Biden administration should establish an institutional mechanism through which a range of ideas can be solicited, exchanged, and directly challenged and defended to filter the signal from the noise.

There is precedent for this. On his first day in office, President Obama signed the Memorandum on Open Government, which stated that “executive departments and agencies should offer Americans increased opportunities to participate in policymaking.” The ensuing Open Government Directive reaffirmed that “the three principles of transparency, participation, and collaboration form the cornerstone of an open government,” and led DOD to quickly establish its Open Government Plan (OGP).

The Biden administration should direct DoD to build on its OGP by adding an Initiative on Public Collaboration for Peace and Prosperity in Space. The first project should be a series of workshops in which relevant experts from the Pentagon and its partners (e.g., contractors and Federally Funded R&D Centers) collaborate with outside experts to assess, compare, and synthesize different proposals to counter specific, individual ASAT threats emerging in the 2020s and 2030s.

As a democracy, the U.S. naturally generates a diversity of ideas. We can either keep them in silos, as we do now, or we can exchange these ideas and subject them to rigorous cross-examination and potential cross-pollination. Standing now at the brink of a new era of weaponized space, our choice should be clear.

Brian Chow is an independent policy analyst with over 160 publications. He can be reached at Brandon Kelley is the Director of Debate at Georgetown University, and a graduate student in the Security Studies Program. He can be reached at

This article originally appeared in the July 2021 issue of SpaceNews magazine.

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Space Force grappling with aging infrastructure used to operate satellites



One of the challenges in using commercial infrastructure is that the ground control systems developed for military satellites can’t talk to commercial antennas

WASHINGTON — The ground stations and tracking antennas the U.S. military relies on to communicate with its satellites — known as the Satellite Control Network, or SCN — are decades old and short of the capacity needed to keep up with the projected growth in space activities.

There are seven SCN sites located in the United States and around the world. About 15 large dish antennas at these sites command more than 190 military and government satellites in multiple orbits.

“Certainly the Satellite Control Network is a venerable system that’s been around for a long time. So we have multiple efforts ongoing to ensure that it’s ready for the future that we now find ourselves in,” Lt. Gen. Stephen Whiting, commander of the U.S. Space Operations Command, said last month at the 36th Space Symposium.

The seven remote tracking stations monitor the position of satellites and control spacecraft’s propulsion, thermal and other systems. Because the antennas can only talk to one satellite at a time, they have limited capacity to transmit, and receive telemetry, tracking and command data.

Whiting said Space Force operators are figuring out ways to not overtax the system. 

“We’ve worked with the squadrons that fly the satellites to make sure they’re only coming to the network when they absolutely have to,” said Whiting. “There was a time when we had a lot of extra capacity and you can just go do extra ‘states of health’ on your satellites,” he added. 

“We’re trying to lower the demand signal,” Whiting said. “And we’re looking at new capabilities coming on, like phased array antennas which would give us a significant increase in capacity, as well as partnering with commercial and civil organizations to use their satellite control networks.”

Fred Taylor, vice president of space and cyber operations at Viasat Government Systems, said time slots to use DoD satellite tracking stations are limited. “It can be difficult to get the aperture you need, when you need it for your mission. A missed contact can have dire consequences.”

Viasat is one of several companies that provide commercial antennas and ground services to supplement the SCN. 

Buy hardware or use commercial services?

Space Force officials said the strategy to modernize the SCN will include a mix of new hardware procurements and commercial services augmentation.

The Pentagon’s Defense Innovation Unit and the Space Systems Command over the past two years have looked at options to replace the existing parabolic antennas with modern electronic phased arrays that can maintain contact with multiple satellites across different orbits and frequency bands.

After evaluating electronic phased array antennas from several providers, the  Space Force’s Space Systems Command ended the program. A new procurement is now being run by the Space Rapid Capabilities Office, a separate organization that acquires classified technologies. 

The Space Force-run project to evaluate phased array antennas — known as MBMM, short for multi-band multi-mission — wrapped up in February, Lt. Col. Louis Aldini, materiel leader for data transport at the Space Systems Command’s Enterprise Corps, said in a statement to SpaceNews.

“During the life of the contract, MBMM demonstrated a phased array technology for transmitting and receiving capabilities with live DoD assets,” said Aldini. “While SSC is no longer pursuing MBMM, we are continuing to work in partnership with Space RCO to share relevant information, knowledge and lessons learned from the original MBMM effort.”

A spokesperson for the Space RCO said the agency could not comment on its plans to modernize the satellite control network. 

“We have a related procurement, but it is not MBMM-reincarnated,” the spokesperson said.

To supplement capacity at the SCN tracking stations, the Space Force can tap into the Commercial Augmentation Services (CAS) program.

The CAS program started in 2016 when the Air Force Research Laboratory awarded Braxton Science and Technology Group a small business innovation research contract to figure out how to augment the military satellite control network with commercial antennas. 

Braxton in 2019 got a $14 million contract to expand the CAS. The company in October 2020 was acquired by Parsons Corp.

Ed Baron, former president of Braxton who now runs the CAS program at Parsons, told SpaceNews that the military is not fully taking advantage of the commercial capacity available. 

“It’s hard for satellite operators to schedule time on commercial systems,” he said. The SCN is overtaxed and meanwhile, the commercial industry is offering increasingly lower cost services, he added. 

Baron said the MBMM effort to acquire phased array antennas was “an excellent program to be investing in, but tapping into commercial gives them access to hundreds of antennas.” Phased arrays each cost tens of millions of dollars, he said, so the government should consider the economic benefits of using commercial services.

For the CAS program, Parsons works with commercial providers Intelsat, Viasat and Kongsberg Satellite Services.

One of the challenges in using commercial infrastructure is that the ground control systems developed for military satellites like GPS can’t talk to commercial antennas. Braxton developed software to make commercial antennas compatible with government systems. “So any of their existing ground systems can now talk to a commercial antenna and use a commercial antenna to talk to the spacecraft,” Baron said.

Cultural resistance to commercial services

Even though Braxton solved the technology gap, the Space Force has been slow to embrace commercial capabilities, Baron said. There is still an internal debate on whether CAS should be treated like a traditional acquisition “where you take the system through full testing, or do you treat it more like a commercial capability?”

By comparison, NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration for decades have relied on commercial services to command and control their satellites, said Baron. Most of the ground systems the Space Force uses today were not designed to communicate with commercial, “so the protocols don’t work.”

Parsons currently has “10 antennas set up for them to use,” he said. But demand has been slow. “We have three more coming online so there will be 13 antennas. We haven’t scheduled a single minute of time for them in probably a year,” said Baron. 

“People ask for commercial capabilities,” he said. “This is one that we’d like to see them use more, and we think can save a lot of tax dollars.”

Craig Miller, president of Viasat Government Systems, said Parsons’ software helped to simplify the process of scheduling time on commercial antennas.

The issue is not just technical incompatibility between government and commercial systems, said Miller. “The Space Force’s biggest challenge is cultural,” he added. “It’s something senior leaders have publicly acknowledged and it remains an obstacle to taking full advantage of commercial capabilities.”

Despite some efforts to leverage commercial capabilities “some resistance remains due to outdated processes,” said Miller.

Another commercial option is being offered by Atlas Space Operation, a company that operates a global network of 30 satellite antennas and has a software platform that automates the scheduling process. 

“Our experience working with the Air Force is that accessing commercial systems is still very manual, and very slow,” Atlas CEO Sean McDaniel said. 

Atlas won a small business innovation research contract from the Air Force Research Laboratory to demonstrate the software platform, said McDaniel. “We provide DoD access to not only commercial networks, ours included, but also government owned networks, civil antennas, as well as DoD antennas through a unified access platform.”

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Four civilian space travelers back on Earth after landmark flight



SpaceX’s Crew Dragon Resilience spaceship descends to the Atlantic Ocean Saturday to end the Inspiration4 mission. Credit: Inspiration4 / SpaceX

Four civilian space travelers rode a SpaceX capsule through a blazing re-entry back into Earth’s atmosphere Saturday evening and safely splashed down in the Atlantic Ocean northeast of Cape Canaveral, completing a historic 71 hours in space as the first privately-funded, non-government crew to fly in orbit.

The four-person Crew Dragon Resilience spacecraft descended under four main parachutes to an on-target splashdown at 7:06 p.m. EDT (2306 GMT) Saturday about 30 miles (50 kilometers) northeast of Kennedy Space Center, where the private Inspiration4 mission launched Wednesday.

“Inspiration4, on behalf of SpaceX, welcome home to planet Earth,” radioed Kris Young, SpaceX’s space operations director, moments after splashdown. “Your mission has shown the world that space is for all of us, and that everyday people can make extraordinary impacts in the world around them.

“Thank you for sharing your leadership, hope, generosity and prosperity,” Young said, referring to the mission’s four principles, or “pillars,” attached to each Inspiration4 crew member.

Jared Isaacman, the billionaire businessman and civilian pilot who paid SpaceX for the mission, replied that the mission was a “heck of a ride … We’re just getting started!”

After a final braking burn to drop out of orbit, the Crew Dragon streaked through the atmosphere over Florida, flying southwest-to-northeast toward the splashdown zone off the east coast. Faint sonic booms were heard at Kennedy Space Center after the capsule soared overhead.

Live views broadcast by SpaceX from the Atlantic Ocean showed the spaceship’s return to Earth. Recovery teams quickly swarmed the capsule to verify there were no toxic leaks, then SpaceX’s “Go Searcher” vessel raised the spacecraft from the ocean.

Once personnel positioned the capsule on the deck of the recovery ship, SpaceX teams assisted each of the four Inspiration4 crew members out of the spacecraft. All four appeared ecstatic and healthy after their three days in low Earth orbit.

After medical checks and a chance to take a shower on the recovery ship, the Inspiration4 crew back to Kennedy Space Center on a helicopter for a reunion with their families.

The successful mission was the first U.S. human spaceflight to orbit Earth without major participation from NASA. Advocates for commercial spaceflight said Inspiration4 opens a door for “everyday people” launch into space, where fewer than 600 people have flown since the dawn of the Space Age.

The price of a trip to space is still out of reach for most people. But SpaceX is striving to make space missions more “airline-like” with lower prices and less risk, according to Benji Reed, SpaceX’s senior director of human spaceflight programs.

NASA’s inspector general says a seat on a Crew Dragon spacecraft for a six-month expedition to the International Space Station costs the agency more than $50 million.

Isaacman paid SpaceX less than that, according to officials familiar with the arrangement, but SpaceX and Isaacman have not disclosed the cost of the Inspiration4 mission.

“We can’t talk about the price of the mission,” Reed said. “That’s obviously private.”

Todd “Leif” Ericson, an Inspiration4 mission director, said the flight signaled the start of a new era in spaceflight.

“We are certainly riding on the shoulders of giants across this nation,” Ericson said in a media teleconference Saturday night. “I think today is a good day for America. I think it’s a great day for commercial space travel.

“And I really believe that this mission will be looked at (as) the opening of, really, the second Space Age, where space becomes much more accessible to average men and women across the world.”

SpaceX developed the Crew Dragon spacecraft with assistance and funding from NASA under the auspices of a public-private cost-sharing contract.

NASA awarded $6.8 billion in contracts to SpaceX and Boeing in 2014 to complete development of new commercial crew capsules to ferry crews to and from the International Space Station, ending the agency’s sole reliance on Russian Soyuz capsules.

SpaceX got $2.6 billion in government funding to design and build the human-rated Crew Dragon spacecraft, and Boeing received a similar $4.2 billion deal for its Starliner spacecraft.

Both programs ran into delays, but SpaceX launched its first astronaut mission for NASA in May 2020, ending a nearly nine-year gap in U.S. orbital crew launches since the retirement of the space shuttle.

Boeing’s Starliner program, on the other hand, still has not flown into space with a crew.

SpaceX has launched four Crew Dragon missions to date, all under contract to NASA. Three of the missions have carried astronauts to the space station.

One of the Crew Dragon missions is still docked at the space station and is scheduled to return to Earth with four astronauts in November, making Inspiration4 the third Dragon flight to return to Earth with human passengers.

After launching on top of a Falcon 9 rocket Wednesday night, the Crew Dragon capsule climbed into an orbit stretching as high as 366 miles (590 kilometers) above Earth, higher than anyone has flown since a space shuttle servicing mission to the Hubble Space Telescope some two decades ago.

The crew members participated in a question-and-answer session with patients at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. Isaacman, 38, conceived of the mission, in part, to raise money and awareness for St. Jude.

Isaacman established four pillars, or values, for the mission, with each seat representing one pillar.

“We set out from the start to deliver a very inspiring message about what can be done up in in space and the possibilities there, but also what we can accomplish here on Earth,” Isaacman said in a press conference before launch.

Isaacman said he chose four mission pillars — leadership, hope, prosperity, and generosity — “to assemble a very inspiring crew, who all have so many amazing qualities and contribute so many interesting firsts of this mission.

“And we also chose to do it through the largest fundraising effort in the history of St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, acknowledging the real responsibilities we have here on Earth, in order to earn the right to make progress up in space,” said Isaacman, who took the commander’s seat on the mission to represent leadership.

Isaacman donated $100 million to St. Jude, and started a fundraising effort linked to the Inspiration4 mission to try to raise $100 million more.

Most of the nearly 600 people who have flown in space have been professional astronauts or cosmonauts employed by a government agency. A handful of “space tourists” have flown into orbit, but all launched on spacecraft commanded by a professional astronaut.

In July, space companies founded by billionaires Richard Branson and Jeff Bezos accomplished a pair of suborbital flights to the edge of space.

Branson, founder of Virgin Galactic, flew with five crewmates on his company’s rocket plane to an altitude of 53 miles (86 kilometers) over New Mexico on July 11, experiencing several minutes of weightlessness before returning to Earth.

Blue Origin, Bezos’s space company, launched four people — including Bezos himself — to an altitude of 66 miles (107 kilometers) over West Texas nine days later. Like Branson, Bezos’s crew floated in their capsule for a few minutes before descending back to the planet.

The Inspiration4 mission accelerated must faster speeds — more than 17,000 mph — needed to enter orbit around Earth.

Issacman’s crewmates included Hayley Arceneaux, a 29-year-old physician assistant at St. Jude and a survivor of childhood bone cancer. She was selected as part of the mission’s “hope” pillar.

Arceneaux became the youngest American to fly in orbit, and the first person with a prosthetic body part to go to space.

Proctor, the fourth Black woman to fly in space, was selected in a competition for the “prosperity” seat on Inspiration4. She used Shift4 Payments, a company bounded by Isaacman, to promote sales of her art and poetry, and submitted a Twitter video for consideration to be a part of the mission.

Sembroski entered a lottery for the “generosity” seat by donating to St. Jude. A college friend won the sweepstakes, but passed on the seat and offered it to Sembroski.

Reed, SpaceX’s human spaceflight director, said Saturday that Inspiration4 was a “very clean mission from start to finish.”

A double-redundant temperature sensor on a Draco thruster dropped offline. “That was never a risk,” Reed said.

Another problem encountered on the three-day mission was an issue with a fan on the Crew Dragon’s waste management system, or toilet.

Without explaining more details, Ericson said officials implemented “contingency procedures and workarounds.”

“The crew was able to, obviously, complete the full duration mission without any real issues,” Ericson said. “As in most exploratory adventures like spaceflight, there’s always you know one or two little hiccups along the way, but this was dealt with amazingly by the SpaceX team.”

Isaacman and his crewmates trained with SpaceX for around six months to familiarize themselves with spacecraft systems and space operations. They were ready to manually command the Crew Dragon spacecraft in the event of an emergency, but the three-day mission flew on autopilot, guided by on-board computers and ground teams at SpaceX mission control in Hawthorne, California.

Hayley Arceneaux, Jared Isaacman, Sian Proctor, and Chris Sembroski flew back to Kennedy Space Center by helicopter Saturday night following their splashdown in the Atlantic Ocean just offshore Florida’s coast. Credit: Inspiration4 / John Kraus

By Saturday night, the Inspiration4 fundraising initiative for St. Jude had tallied $160 million, including $100 million donated by Isaacman and $60 million from the public.

Elon Musk, SpaceX’s founder and CEO, tweeted late Saturday: “Count me in for $50M.”

The donation of another $50 million appeared to put the St. Jude fundraiser over its $200 million goal.

In a live video downlink Friday, the Inspiration4 crew described their “incredible perspective” of Earth from space. Arceneaux detailed some of the scientific experiments measuring any changes in the crew’s bodies and monitoring the radiation environment at an altitude of more than 360 miles, about 100 miles above the orbit of the International Space Station.

The crew members chatted with Musk, Tom Cruise, and U2 lead singer Bono. They also enjoyed panoramic views from a cupola viewing window attached to the front end of the spaceship.

The video update Friday was the first only public downlink from the crew between launch and landing. Space-to-ground communications are broadcast publicly throughout NASA flights to and from the International Space Station, keeping with the government agency’s charter for openness.

But radio transmissions between the Inspiration4 crew and SpaceX mission control were not available to the public, limiting real-time insight into the crew’s activities in orbit.

The Crew Dragon spacecraft was in near-constant communication with SpaceX mission control through voice and data links provided by NASA’s Tracking and Data Relay Satellite network. The Crew Dragon can only downlink live video during passes over ground stations.

Ground teams planned to retrieve high-resolution still photos and high-definition video recordings, including imagery from a GoPro 360-degree camera, after splashdown Saturday night. The video will be featured in a Netflix documentary about the mission.

SpaceX has other private crew missions on the books, beginning with the launch of another four-person team on a Dragon spacecraft in early 2022. On that mission, sponsored by the Houston-based company Axiom Space, the Dragon spacecraft will dock with the space station, and the private astronauts will spend about a week living and working there under an arrangement with NASA.

There are also more dedicated NASA flights with SpaceX’s fleet Crew Dragon capsules. SpaceX’s next NASA crew flight is set for launch Oct. 31 from Kennedy Space Center to kick off a six-month expedition to the space station.

“As we look for ways to evolve toward that airline-like model, we’ll look for how we can cut back on the amount of training that’s necessary to ensure safety,” Reed said before Inspiration4’s launch.

“The reality is that the Dragon manifest is getting busier by the moment,” Reed said. “We’re gearing up to fly three, four, five, six times a year, at least.”

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Follow Stephen Clark on Twitter: @StephenClark1.

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Crew Dragon splashes down to conclude Inspiration4 mission



Updated 9:15 p.m. Eastern with comments from post-splashdown briefing.

KIHEI, Hawaii — SpaceX’s first private crewed mission ended with the splashdown of the Crew Dragon spacecraft off the Florida coast Sept. 18.

The Crew Dragon spacecraft Resilience splashed down off the coast from Cape Canaveral, Florida, at 7:06 p.m. Eastern. The splashdown took place 50 minutes after the spacecraft started its deorbit burn.

“Inspiration4, on behalf of SpaceX, welcome home to planet Earth,” Kris Young, SpaceX space operations director, said from SpaceX mission control moments after splashdown. “Your mission has shown that space is for all of us, and everyday people can make extraordinary impacts on the world around them.”

“Thanks so much, SpaceX. It was a heck of a ride for us,” Jared Isaacman, the commander, responded. “Things are just getting started.”

The splashdown wrapped up the Inspiration4 mission 71 hours after its Sept. 15 launch from the Kennedy Space Center. Isaacman, a billionaire, paid for the flight, intending to use it as a fundraiser for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital.

Accompanying Isaacman on the mission were Hayley Arceneaux, a physician assistant at and former patient of St. Jude; Sian Proctor, a geoscientist and artist who won a competition affiliated with Isaacman’s online payments company, Shift4 Payments; and Chris Sembroski, selected through a raffle contest to raise money for St. Jude.

In a 10-minute live video session Sept. 17, the crew appeared to be enjoying their time in orbit. They discussed activities ranging from biomedical research to taking pictures in a cupola installed in the nose of the spacecraft.

In a call with reporters about an hour after splashdown, SpaceX and Inspiration4 officials said the mission went very well. “It was a very clean mission from start to finish,” said Benji Reed, senior director of human spaceflight programs at SpaceX. He described a problem with a fan in the spacecraft’s waste management system, but that the crew was “happy and healthy.” A temperature sensor in a Draco thruster malfunctioned, but he said both the sensor and the thruster itself were redundant.

“The crew was able to complete the full-duration mission without any issues,” said Todd Ericson, Inspiration4 mission director. “There’s always one or two little hiccups along the way, but these were dealt with amazingly by the SpaceX team.”

Inspiration4 has raised nearly $30 million for St. Jude since the launch, with about $60 million raised according to the project’s website. However, that is still far short of the goal of $100 million when Isaacman and SpaceX announced the mission in February. Inspiration4 said in a Sept. 17 statement that it hopes to raise $200 million, including $100 million Isaacman already donated, by February 2022.

Inspiration4 was SpaceX’s fourth crewed flight, but the first not part of NASA’s commercial crew program. The splashdown is the third for a crewed Crew Dragon spacecraft; the Crew-2 spacecraft that launched in April is still docked to the International Space Station and scheduled to return in November.

The next Crew Dragon mission for NASA, Crew-3, is scheduled for launch Oct. 31 carrying astronauts for NASA and the European Space Agency. The next private Crew Dragon mission is the Ax-1 mission for Axiom Space, which will launch no earlier than January 2022 and spend a week at the ISS.

Reed said in the call there is growing demand for commercial Crew Dragon flights. “The amount of people who are approaching us through our sales and marketing portals has actually increased significantly,” he said, projecting that SpaceX could support five or six crewed missions a year between NASA and commercial customers. “If the demand is there, then we’ll want to look at what we can do to continue to grow that.”

“This mission will be looked at as the first mission of the opening of the second space age, where space travel became much more accessible to average men and women across the world,” said Ericson.

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SpaceX to launch Turksat 6A



KIHEI, Hawaii — Turksat will launch its first domestically built communications satellite on a SpaceX Falcon 9, the Turkish government announced Sept. 17.

The Ministry of Transport and Infrastructure said it awarded SpaceX a contract for the launch of Turksat 6A, scheduled for the first quarter of 2023. The ministry did not disclose the terms of the contract.

In a government statement, Minister of Transport and Infrastructure Adil Karaismailoğlu said the government considered “many launcher companies” before selecting SpaceX, “which offers the best solution in terms of both technical, administrative and financial aspects.”

Turksat 6A will be the country’s first communications satellite built domestically, by the TÜBİTAK Space Technologies Research Institute. The spacecraft will operate from 42 degrees east with a payload of Ku- and X-band transponders.

In the statement, Karaismailoğlu said assembly of the satellite is scheduled to be completed before the end of the year, with the satellite finishing environmental testing by the end of 2022.

Turksat 6A will be the third Turksat satellite launched by SpaceX. A Falcon 9 launched Turksat 5A in January and Turksat 5B is scheduled for launch in the fourth quarter of 2021. Both Turksat 5A and 5B were built by Airbus Defence and Space.

The contract is the second in as many weeks that SpaceX has won from a regional GEO satellite operator. Yahsat selected SpaceX Sept. 8 to launch its Thuraya 4-NGS satellite on a Falcon 9 in the second half of 2023.

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