• SpaceX’s Starship wet test…
  • A 50-year-old NASA project finds new life…
  • A “mini” SpaceX?

Dear Reader,

We’ve been watching the entertaining “battle” between the U.S. airline industry and the wireless communications industry over the last couple of years.

The airline industry has been in an outcry over “safety” concerns related to the deployment of 5G wireless communications deployed in C-band spectrum around U.S. airports. 

The industry demanded that the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), with support from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), prohibit the deployment of 5G in C-band spectrum until there was a settlement over costs to upgrade aircraft to “protect” against C-band 5G signals.

I have long maintained that this was nothing but a hold up…an old fashioned shakedown. 

There was very little chance of any interference between C-band 5G and the radio altimeters of commercial aircraft. The issue was being completely blown out of proportion to extract money from the wireless industry, which is typically a heck of a lot more profitable than the airline industry.

Making the issue even more comical is that around the world, there have been C-band deployments of 5G around airports without incident. Making the matter even more ridiculous is that U.S. airlines have been flying their aircraft into those international airports daily, also without incident. 

Yet they were “unwilling” to do so in the U.S.

This is the reason that there is limited 5G coverage in U.S. airports at the moment. If we see a “5G” in the upper right corner of our smartphone screen, it is typically 5G deployed in the UHF band, not C-band. 

And that means it’s going to perform more like a 4G network. It’s not “real” 5G. We start to see the real 5G speeds and low latency with C-band deployments. And the 1 Gbps plus speeds come when deploying in the mmWave bands.

Of course, the wireless industry knew that it was all just a game, a money grab. So they pushed the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to collect the detailed information from the airline industry about how many old altimeters were out there that might need updating just to be safe.

The industry wasn’t very helpful in providing the information, and now we know why. 

It just didn’t impact that many aircraft at all. Limited impact = less money in a settlement for the airline industry. 

The FAA did the leg work on the U.S. commercial fleet and determined that only about 180 aircraft would need a new altimeter. And another 820 would benefit from a new altimeter filter. That’s it. 

For perspective, the total U.S. commercial aircraft fleet is about 6,870 aircraft and the general aviation fleet is 204,504.

The grand total for 180 new altimeters and 820 filters? Just $26,049,810. 

That’s an insignificant number for the U.S. airline and wireless industries. And it’s all over a problem that really isn’t a problem.

The FAA did good work. It quantified what needed to be done. And the U.S. airline industry isn’t happy. 

It lost its potential “payday.” And not surprisingly, the airline industry is already dragging their feet, most likely trying to come up with some argument for a larger number.

At present, the schedule for completing the altimeter upgrades is February 24, 2024. Theoretically, that means that the wireless operators could turn on their C-band 5G networks at all airports around that time.

Let’s hope the industry sticks to the schedule outlined by the FAA. C-band 5G wireless technology really shines in locations where there are a large number of people using the network at the same time. That’s why C-band or mmWave band deployments at places like airports are so useful. And given how expensive it is to deploy at mmWave, wireless networks strongly prefer to use the C-band at locations like airports.

We’ll have to be a bit patient in the U.S. for another year, but for those of us that travel, we should see a major upgrade at airports next February.

SpaceX is about to make history…

I’m excited to say that SpaceX has completed its wet test for its Starship. I can’t overstate just how important this event is.

SpaceX has been prolific in their launches in recent years. In 2022 alone, the company launched a record 61 rockets into space. On average, that’s more than one per week.

With so many launches, it can be difficult to keep track. But this is the “big one,” literally and figuratively.

As a reminder, the Starship is the world’s first reusable all-purpose spacecraft. It’s made of stainless steel and looks almost like a giant corn silo, just a lot cooler.

And this thing is massive.

The Starship is 394 feet tall and 30 feet wide. It’s capable of carrying over 100 metric tons into space. I mean, just look at that thing.

SpaceX’s Starship

Source: SpaceX

A wet test is when they take the liquid propellant and inject it into the upper stage and the booster rocket. Then they start the launch countdown to simulate a live launch.

As we can see in the picture, the Starship is stacked on top of its booster right now – just as it would be for a real launch. This is at the launch facility in Boca Chica, Texas.

But with the wet test, they didn’t actually launch the craft. Instead, they will de-stack the Starship and take the propellant out to prepare for final pre-flight testing.

Once de-stacked, the next step is a static fire test. That’s where they ignite the booster on the launch pad without the Starship on top.

The purpose here is to test all 33 of the Raptor rocket engines at the base of the booster. If they are functioning properly, that’s the last major step prior to launch. At that point we’re no more than weeks away from the first orbital launch of the Starship.

This is the end game for SpaceX and CEO Elon Musk.

The Starship is the vehicle that will power NASA’s Artemis mission to the Moon in 2024. From there, this is the spacecraft that will conduct the first crewed mission to Mars in the years to follow.

Starship’s first orbital flight will be a groundbreaking milestone in the history of space exploration. And the best part is that we get to watch all of these developments happen in real time.

How to get from Earth to Mars in a fraction of the time…

NASA just made a somewhat surprising announcement on Tuesday of this week. It’s partnering with the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency (DARPA) to build a nuclear thermal rocket engine.

This is a rocket that’s powered by nuclear fission technology. The same tech that nuclear power plants use today.

And the goal is to have a nuclear-powered rocket ready to test by 2027. That’s just four years away. It seems really fast for something that hasn’t been done before…

But the story behind this is interesting…

I bet some readers might even remember NASA’s Nuclear Engine for Rocket Vehicle Application (NERVA) program from back in the 1970s.

That team was experimenting with nuclear thermal propulsion way back then. The program’s goal was to send a crewed mission to Mars by 1979 using nuclear-powered rockets.

But as we know, the space race came to an abrupt halt in 1972. The NERVA program was shelved due to budget cuts after having won the race to the moon. And the focus shifted quickly to the threat of the cold war.

So this idea has been around for fifty years. And NASA is picking it back up now.

The reason is simple. The thrust-to-weight ratio of a nuclear thermal rocket is between two and five times more efficient than that of a rocket powered by chemical propulsion – which is what we use today. This means one of two things…

With nuclear-powered rockets, NASA will be able to conduct missions that move the same amount of weight faster and farther out into space. Or it can run missions that move even greater weight for the same distances at the same speed as current rockets.

NASA is clearly thinking well beyond the upcoming Artemis mission to the Moon here.

Nuclear-powered rockets aren’t necessary for Moon missions. But when we start considering trips to Mars and beyond, nuclear thermal propulsion could reduce the time it takes for a spacecraft to get to its final destination by at least half, and potentially even more than two -thirds.

Obviously that would make a huge difference when we start thinking about establishing a manned presence out farther in space. At that point, we’ll have spacecraft traveling back and forth on a regular basis.

But of course, nuclear-powered rockets don’t come without their drawbacks. We can imagine the response from the public: ‘You want to launch a nuclear reactor into space how close to my house?! Not in my backyard.’ Or for politicians, ‘not in my state!

I’d be curious what readers think about this subject. Are the benefits of nuclear thermal rockets worth the risks? Feel free to send me your thoughts right here.

Tracking a publicly traded pure play on the new space race…

Last week we saw how 2022 was an incredible year for rocket launches. When we looked at global launches, one of the standouts was nine launches from New Zealand of all places.

It wasn’t New Zealand as a country, but U.S. based Rocket Lab that led the charge for those launches. If we remember, Rocket Lab is another emerging aerospace company like SpaceX. It specializes in launching smaller payloads into low-Earth orbit. And like SpaceX, Rocket Lab developed its own system for recovering and reusing rocket boosters.

And the big news this week is that Rocket Lab just conducted its first launch from U.S. soil. Specifically, Rocket Lab launched three satellites from the launch facility at Wallops Island, Virginia.

This was just the first of what will become monthly launch missions for Rocket Lab. And they will all happen from the Wallops island location. It’s going to become one of the most active space ports in the world.

I see this as an indication of where the industry is going.

We talked about SpaceX launching the Starship in Boca Chica, Texas. And we know that NASA often conducts launches from various facilities in Florida.

In fact, a team member down in Florida has been documenting some of the recent launches from that location. Below, we can see one of the recent SpaceX launches, including twin boosters navigating back to the launch pads.

The fact is different launch locations are optimal for different kinds of launches. Having space ports at varying latitudes and longitudes is critical for this reason. It allows entities to choose the optimal launch location for their specific mission.

So this is yet another sign that the new space race is on.

And if we remember, Rocket Lab went public through a special purpose acquisition corporation (SPAC) back in August 2021. It’s now trading under the ticker RKLB.

That makes Rocket Lab one of the only publicly traded pure plays on the new era of the space economy. I wouldn’t recommend the stock at these levels, however.

Rocket Lab currently trades at an enterprise value of over ten times sales. And it’s burning through cash every quarter.

So the stock is too richly valued to make for a good investment target right now. But if we get a broad market pullback that cuts RKLB’s share price in half, that’s when the company will become a lot more interesting from an investment perspective.

Either way, we’ll continue to track Rocket Lab closely. It’s going to be an explosive year.


Jeff Brown
Editor, The Bleeding Edge