Soichi to join three-spaceship club, SpaceX is going to the Moon (no, really), and rocket boffins step up COVID-19 fight

Also: Satellite comms outfit OneWeb files for Chapter 11

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Roundup Welcome to another roundup of the week's rocket-based tomfoolery for space nerds. Let's jump straight into it.

Hello to Soichi

The Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency announced that astronaut Noguchi Soichi is to start training to be sent to the International Space Station (ISS) aboard the first operational SpaceX Crew Dragon flight.

That first flight is predicated on the hoped-for May flight of the Demo-2 mission being a success.

Should it happen, the flight will place Soichi into an elite group of spacefarers: those who have flown on three different types of vehicle. Soichi has done the Space Shuttle for STS-114, Soyuz TMA-17 and now, potentially, the Crew Dragon.

There are those who might insist NASA's Shuttles were all quite different vehicles (particularly if one were to compare Columbia to the last of the line, Endeavour) but we'll go by general classification.

If one considers the Apollo-era Lunar Module as a spacecraft in its own right, one could count the late John Young as the record holder with four different vehicles to his name; Gemini, the Apollo Command and Lunar Modules, and the Space Shuttle. Thomas Stafford could also be considered, thanks to the Gemini and Apollo spacecraft as well the Apollo Soyuz Test Project of the 1970s.

And if one considers Skylab, then the late Pete Conrad could also be considered a veteran of four different vehicles.

Either way, we wish Soichi the best of luck and look forward to seeing the first crewed Orion and Starliner spacecraft fly, and that four-vehicle record broken once and for all.

OneWeb files for Chapter 11

Demonstrating that the commercial realities of space are hard, OneWeb has filed for US bankruptcy protection under Chapter 11. The move is intended to give the company time to sell off the business.

The company claims 22 of its ground stations are either complete or in progress and had demonstrated broadband speeds of 400Mbps (32ms latency) with its embryonic constellation.

OneWeb, which counts SoftBank among its investors, had been trying since the start of the year to secure funding to complete its constellation but those efforts fell through, leaving it at 74 satellites. OneWeb fingered market turbulence related to the COVID-19 pandemic.

It's a sad day for the employees of the company, many of whom have been let go and the remainder focused on managing the nascent constellation. It also means OneWeb has joined the list of companies that have tried and failed to launch and operate large numbers of satellites.

SpaceX chosen as Lunar Gateway delivery boy

SpaceX, which has continued to lob dozens of Starlink satellites into orbit, was last week awarded NASA's first logistics contract to deliver supplies to the agency's longed-for Lunar Gateway.

The vehicle will lug up to five metric tonnes of cargo to the Gateway, including pressurised and unpressurised supplies. SpaceX has a bit of experience in such matters, having supplied the ISS since 2012. Unlike its original Dragon freighters, however, this vehicle will be expected to remain at the Gateway for six months to a year at a time.

NASA continues to optimistically insist that it will put American boots back on the Moon's surface by 2024, despite sending workers home due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The Gateway was recently deemed not essential in what is starting to look more and more like an Apollo-style flags-and-footprints effort, for the early missions at least.

The award for SpaceX came as NASA's Office of the Inspector General announced it would be taking a close look at the acquisition strategy adopted by the agency for the Artemis Moon programme. Judging by the recent somewhat critical reports into NASA's troubled lunar ambitions, we'd suggest loading up on the popcorn early.

Skyrora rachets up production and Virgin Orbit designs a ventilator

Putting aside rocket-based fripperies in favour of the altogether more serious task of helping to deal with the threat posed by the COVID-19 pandemic, California-based Virgin Orbit is to put its Long Beach manufacturing facility to work producing a bridge ventilator aimed at patients that do not need intensive care.

Pending approval by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), production of the bridge ventilators is aimed at commencing in early April as rocket scientists turn their hands to churning out medical equipment.

On the other side of the Atlantic, having produced its first batch of hand sanitisers, Edinburgh-based rocketeer Skyrora is turning its 3D printing smarts toward making face visors for health workers. At the same time as scaling up production of 250ml bottles of hand sanitiser to 10,000 a week, the company has submitted its masks for testing before kicking off production.

Volodymyr Levykin, Skyrora chief exec, reckoned the company was in a fortunate enough position to be able to help out and so should: "It is at a time like this, that a business like ours should step up and carry out a civic duty, setting aside the normal commercial activity and standing side by side with the Scottish government, the NHS and the UK government for the greater good of our country." ®

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