Good morning. We’re sending you all our best wishes of warm weather and clear skies for your cookouts and beach days this long weekend. Enjoy your Memorial Day, and we’ll meet you back here Tuesday morning.
✈️ Virgin takes flight
🚀 OIG pans SLS propulsion
📖 Payload’s picks
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Virgin Galactic Launches Final Test Flight
Image: Virgin Galactic
Virgin Galactic took to the skies yesterday, launching the final VSS Unity test flight before beginning commercial service.
The Unity 25 mission tested the ship’s technical function as well as the astronauts’ experience. This was the company’s first spaceflight in nearly two years after a pause for an FAA investigation and fifth in total. The first commercial mission is slated for late June.
Mission recap: The carrier aircraft, VMS Eve, flew the VSS Unity spacecraft to an altitude of 40,000 feet, where it released the spacecraft just after noon ET. VSS Unity then fired its own rocket engines and traveled beyond the boundary of space at ~286,176 feet.
It landed at 12:37pm ET at Spaceport America in New Mexico.
The company did not publicly livestream the launch, but viewers were able to watch live via NASA Spaceflight’s stream.
The crew: VSS Unity is designed to hold up to eight crew members—six passengers and two pilots—but only flew with six. The entire crew consisted of Virgin Galactic employees, including the first female astronaut from New Mexico.
Mike Masucci and CJ Sturckow piloted VSS Unity. Passengers included Beth Moses, Luke Mays, Christopher Huie, and Jamila Gilbert.
Jameel Janjua and Nicola Pecile commanded VMS Eve.
Space tourism: Blue Origin is currently the only company to have regularly offered a commercial space tourism service on its New Shepard capsule. However, Virgin Galactic is next in line. The launcher plans to commence construction of the new Delta class spaceships this year, which are intended to pick up the pace of flights with a more easily manufacturable design.
The bigger picture: This launch was crucial for Virgin Galactic’s tourism bid. The company has suffered a number of setbacks and delays in developing its spaceflight vehicles. Serving as the final assessment before launching paying customers, this test was a key indicator on the path to revenue as quarterly burn continues to increase.
Virgin Galactic has sold ~600 reservations for future flights priced at $200,000-$250,000 each. Ticket sales now begin at $450,000 per seat.
+ Market check: Despite the mission’s success, Virgin Galactic’s stock dropped 8% yesterday by market close.
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NASA Inspector General Highly Critical of SLS Spending
Image: Aerojet Rocketdyne
NASA’s Office of Inspector General (OIG) issued a scathing report yesterday on the cost overruns in the engine and booster contracts under the Artemis SLS program. The report revealed $23.8B of total SLS expenses since 2012, resulting in a dizzying $4.2B cost per launch.
Over the Moon: SLS is an expendable heavy-lift rocket designed to launch astronauts to the Moon on NASA’s Artemis missions. The NASA-funded launch vehicle has been set back by six years of delays and $6B of cost overruns on booster and RS-25 engine contracts alone.
In its no-holds-barred report, NASA’s watchdog office took aim at the SLS’s heritage design and cost-plus contracts.
Heritage design: In an attempt to minimize expenses, in 2011, Congress directed NASA to design SLS with adapted Shuttle-era Northrop Grumman and Aerojet tech. NASA spent $581M to recertify and deliver 16 RS-25 engines, and so far has only received five for its investment.
Cost-plus contracts: NASA funds SLS largely through cost-plus contracts, which means the space agency maintains max control and ownership over the design but bears all cost overruns. So, when Northrup and Aerojet overspent, sometimes by twice the budget, NASA was forced to foot the bill.
In recent years, as the commercial space industry has matured, NASA has moved to awarding more fixed-price contracts—for example, through its Starship and Blue Moon lunar lander contracts. In its recommendations, OIG suggested exploring whether RS-25 Aerojet engine production could be adjusted to a fixed price to cap further agency risk.
In a response to the OIG report, NASA pushed back against this suggestion, since the 11 engines in question are now nearly complete.
Other OIG criticism included inadequate management, procurement staffing shortages, poor negotiating, and millions of dollars of questionable contractor payments.
Join Payload and In-Q-Tel in DC
DC readers, we're coming to you! Mark your calendar for our upcoming event with In-Q-Tel on June 6, where we'll be bringing the city's space community and leaders in policy together to foster collaboration.
Tom Gillespie, Managing Partner at In-Q-Tel
Representative Max Miller, member of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee who represents NASA Glenn Research Center in Ohio
Representative Salud Carbajal, Democratic member of the House Armed Services Strategic Forces Subcommittee who represents Vandenberg Space Force Base in California
In Other News
ULA began the countdown for a static fire test of its next-gen Vulcan rocket, but ended it early due to a “delayed response from the booster engine ignition system” and will roll the rocket back to the Vertical Integration Facility.
ThrustMe, an iodine propulsion provider, has surpassed 100 customer orders.
UKSA is launching a £50M ($61.6M) space clusters and infrastructure fund to boost UK companies building space R&D infrastructure.
Starliner may not yet be ready for a crewed flight, according to concerns raised at a NASA Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel meeting.
Three cubesats launched yesterday on South Korea’s Nuri rocket have not established communications with the ground.
📖 What we’re reading:
Polaris takes us behind-the-scenes of the Artemis II astronauts D.C. tour last week and the quest to keep our lunar program fully funded (3 min read).
Parallax dives into a practice run for intercepting extraterrestrial messages and discusses the ways SETI researchers are sharpening our senses to be ready when it comes (3 min read).
Ars Technica outlines the space revolution in a piece titled, “At long last, the glorious future we were promised in space is on the way” (8 min read).
Josef Aschbacher, head of ESA, writes candidly about how Europe has fallen behind in the launch market and the need to develop stronger domestic launch capabilities (5 min read).
👀 What we’re watching:
The Ax-2 crew is welcomed into the ISS with hugs and high-fives (8 min watch).
🏆 ICYMI, here were the three most-read stories on our website this week:
The View from Space
The Hubble telescope snapped a photo of the jellyfish galaxy JW39 floating alone through space.