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“Made in America” is on (government) life support, and the prognosis isn’t good

Intel and Boeing, two of the pillars of American industry.

Intel makes some of the most impressive chips in the world and has for decades, driving high-performance computing to its limits while supporting a company with a market cap today of $200 billion and supporting more than 110,000 employees. Meanwhile, Boeing remains a global leader in aviation despite retiring the 747, with $66 billion in revenue backing a market cap of $90 billion and hosting more than 153,000 workers.

Like pillars of classic Rome though, they exist merely as a shell of their former function. They are weathered, tired, and crumbling, and it doesn’t seem likely that they can hold up the American economy the way they have over the past generation, nor keep the country on the frontier of innovation any longer in their critical industries.

Deindustrialization has swept through the United States for decades of course. It started with the easy stuff — textiles, consumer widgets, appliances — but the sophistication of export-driven economies like Korea, Germany, Taiwan, China, Thailand, Turkey and others has pushed more and more of the manufacturing stack overseas.

Now, even the absolute finest pillars of American exceptionalism in industry are under deep threat. Intel is in the worst position between the two. The company’s bombshell announcement that it is delaying its next-generation 7nm node and would also begin outsourcing some of its manufacturing caused waves on Wall Street, with the stock down nearly 20% in just two weeks. Analysts increasingly believe that Taiwan contract fab TSMC is taking a multi-year lead over Intel’s technology.

Meanwhile, Boeing had and continues to have that whole 737 MAX debacle since the plane model’s first crash in October 2018. That was debilitating enough, but then you add coronavirus and the global collapse of travel on top of it, and the company’s very prospects are looking quite a bit more endangered than anyone could have anticipated two years ago.

For the United States, the first step in ameliorating these slow-motion train wrecks has been the classic policy crisis tool of the bailout. Intel is maybe the most prominent example of America’s death in semiconductors, but it is hardly alone. So Congress is targeting the industry for heavy incentives to try to bridge the gap. Two weeks ago, Senator John Cornyn (R-TX) got widespread bipartisan support for his amendment to this year’s defense budget bill that would appropriate billions of dollars of funding and incentives to propel American chipmaking.

Meanwhile, Boeing sought a $60 billion government bailout, before finding a debt consortium of private investors to fund operations. Yet, Boeing gets a different kind of support from the U.S. government, given that a third of its revenues from defense sales, which is obviously heavily driven by the Pentagon. A government bailout for the manufacturer this year is still not out of the question.

Smothering dollars on these companies isn’t going to change the rot that is spreading within. Both companies have transformed engineering-focused cultures to profit-driven maximization, while facing keen global competition that has chipped away at their advantages. Boeing is again safer than Intel — Airbus hasn’t been much better when it comes to innovation and bad strategic decisions like the A380, and China’s airframe manufacturer Commercial Aircraft Corporation of China isn’t really ready for primetime although it is certainly progressing.

It’s not that industrial policy fails, it’s that American industrial policy seems flagrantly incompetent.

Taiwan has made semiconductor excellence a critical aspect of its national economy. Korea has made cultural productions like K-pop and K-drama a top government priority, now a massive growing global industry. China has perhaps most notoriously made supporting flagship industries a key bedrock of its economic development, to much success over the past three decades. And the list continues.

What’s the difference? In one word: strategy. In each of these successful cases, governments spurred the creation of new industries through incentives and policy changes, while ensuring that these industries built up differentiated intellectual property that would pay back those incentives in spades.

The United States on the other hand always jumps in with the handouts at precisely the wrong time. Rather than incentivizing the creation of new industries, it runs to the industries in decline and sprays that cash fertilizer across the weeds and deadwood.

While Congress spends billions to try to salvage the chip industry, the Trump Administration announced a $75 million quantum computing initiative aimed at spurring America to the frontiers of advanced computing. While China is investing billions in 5G wireless technologies, America is offering hundreds of thousands of dollars to start rural testbeds.

As an economic superpower, the United States has lived in a world where it was simply, by default, the best at whatever it and its citizens wanted to be. Industries could be fragmented, government policy could be out-of-whack, schools and universities could be horrifically inefficient in training, but none of that mattered since few other countries could compete across such a breadth of industry.

Today, plenty of countries can compete in manufacturing and cultural production. And not only can they compete, but they are willing to go all-in to ensure that they succeed in these endeavors. Taiwan is not great at semiconductors because of a random constellation of factors, it’s great because it pushed its entire economy, education system, and government to prioritize its excellence on top of changes like the opening of the global economy and the rise of China.

Intel and Boeing still have a chance of course, they are still massive companies with cash and talent. Yet, one can’t help look at the history of every other collapsed manufacturing company in the U.S. and not feel a startling sense of déjà vu. We didn’t get it right those times — do we have it in us to do it right this time?

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SpaceX makes history with successful first human space launch

SpaceX made history today, flying NASA astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken to space aboard its Crew Dragon spacecraft using a Falcon 9 rocket. The launch, titled ‘Demo-2’, is for the final demonstration mission in the human rating process of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon and Falcon 9, meaning that once this mission is complete, the launch vehicle will finally be certified for operational use for regular transportation of people to space. This was the second attempt, after an initial launch try last Wednesday was scrubbed due to weather conditions.

This is the first time ever that humans have been aboard a SpaceX vehicle as it launched. To date, SpaceX’s Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets have succeeded in delivering multiple cargo payloads to orbit, but Behnken and Hurley are the first people to make the trip with the private spaceflight company.

SpaceX also successfully landed its first stage booster from the Falcon 9 used today – which means it will recover the first private spacecraft booster that has ever delivered human astronauts to space.

NASA created the Commercial Crew space program to spur the development of private launch vehicles that would also be able to serve commercial customers in addition to the agency, in order to defray the cost of launch overall. Both SpaceX and Boeing ended up placing winning bids on the Commercial Crew contracts, and have subsequently developed human launch systems, though SpaceX is the first to actually fly people on their vehicle after Boeing encountered some unexpected issues in their last uncrewed demonstration flight.

Astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley bump fists to celebrate their history-making launch on SpaceX’s Crew Dragon.

It’s been multiple decades since a human took off from U.S. soil on a brand new launch vehicle, and this is also the first time anyone has flown to space from an American launch site since the Space Shuttle program was officially retired in 2011. Returning U.S. spaceflight capabilities also means NASA won’t have to rely on Russia’s Roscosmos and its Soyuz spacecraft exclusively to transport its astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS) – could save more than $30 million per astronaut per trip as a result.

Today’s launch kicks off a multi-week mission for Behnken and Hurley, which next involves a rendezvous with the ISS around 19 hours from now. Crew Dragon will first take around 30 minutes to perform a manual control test, wherein Behnken and Hurley will take over and fly the spacecraft themselves. This isn’t what would normally happen on a normal Crew Dragon mission, since the spacecraft is designed to make the trip to ISS on its own operating entirely in an automated manner.

After that manual control test, Crew Dragon will once again take over and then fly the remainder of the way to the ISS, where it’ll dock itself with an entry hatch on the station. From there, Behnken and Hurley will transfer over to the station, where they’re set to stay for a period of between six and sixteen weeks, depending on NASA’s determination of how long the mission should last. This is somewhat dependent on staffing requirements on board the ISS, since currently there’s only one U.S. astronaut there in an operational capacity, and Hurley and Behnken will be tasked with assisting with experiments and maintenance on the station.

CAPE CANAVERAL, FLORIDA – MAY 30: The SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket launches into space with NASA astronauts Bob Behnken (R) and Doug Hurley aboard the rocket from the Kennedy Space Center on May 30, 2020 in Cape Canaveral, Florida. The inaugural flight is the first manned mission since the end of the Space Shuttle program in 2011 to be launched into space from the United States. (Photo by Saul Martinez/Getty Images)

Once it’s determined when they’re coming back, they’ll climb back aboard the Crew Dragon, seal it up and then detach from the station. This return part of the program is also designed to be fully automated, with the spacecraft preforming the necessary boost-back engine firing to control its re-entry and descent. Once in atmosphere, it’ll release its parachutes to slow the fall back to Earth, and coast to a landing in the Atlantic Ocean, where SpaceX crews will recover the capsule and provide the astronauts their ride back to dry land.

SpaceX plans to begin flying astronauts to the ISS for fully, regular operational missions later this year if all goes well, and it has also signed agreements to begin offering berths to paying passengers for Crew Dragon space tourist trips (likely with an extremely high price tag) as early as next year.

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Watch live as SpaceX launches its first ever spacecraft with people on board

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SpaceX is once again preparing to make history – the private spaceflight company is set to launch its Crew Dragon Demo-2 mission in collaboration with NASA today. This is the second time they’ve prepared to launch this mission, after an attempt on Wednesday last week was scrubbed due to bad weather. Today’s attempt is set for 3:22 PM EDT (12:22 PM PDT) and preparations, along with the launch itself, will be streamed above starting at 11 AM EDT (8 AM PDT).

The launch will take off from Cape Canaveral in Florida, and once again weather is a concern for today’s launch window. SpaceX and NASA have an instantaneous launch window today, which means they only have the one shot to take off – if the weather isn’t cooperating at 3:22 PM EDT, they’ll have to re-attempt the launch again, with the next possible window set for tomorrow, Sunday May 31.

This is the first time ever that SpaceX will be launching humans aboard one of its spacecraft – NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley have the honor of being those first passengers. The mission itself is actually technically still a test, the final demonstration mission in the multi-year development of Crew Dragon, SpaceX’s first human-rated spacecraft. This launch will serve as the proof that Crew Dragon and the Falcon 9 rocket that carries it, is ready for human-rating, after which it will be ready for regular operational service, flying U.S. and allied astronauts to and from the International Space Station (ISS) in low Earth orbit.

That will mean the U.S. once again has domestic human launch capabilities, something it hasn’t been able to claim since it ended the Space Shuttle program in 2011. That’s a big deal for a number of reasons, but primarily because it means that NASA won’t rely on buying berths on Russian Soyuz spacecraft to get to the ISS, which will help it save money and ultimately control its own access to Earth’s orbital lab.

If successful, SpaceX will be the first of NASA’s two Commercial Crew partners to achieve this milestone. The other, Boeing, is still in the process of working out the kinks of its CST-100 Starliner human crew capsule, which encountered errors during its first uncrewed demonstration mission, resulting in the need to run that launch again sometime later this year, and then, depending on how that goes, fly its first human flight hopefully in 2021. SpaceX, meanwhile, is set to begin operational missions with Crew Dragon later this year, if all goes well with Demo-2.

Provided the launch occurs today, Behnken and Hurley will then spend 19 hours on orbit as they make their way to rendezvous with the Space Station for docking. They’ll then staff the station for a period of between a few weeks and a few months, depending on NASA’s decision regarding their ultimate mission length. That will involve helping with station maintenance and conducting experiments, and then they’ll re-enter Crew Dragon and make the trip back to Earth for an Atlantic Ocean splashdown and recovery once their time at the station is over.

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Virgin Orbit’s first orbital test flight cut short after rocket released from carrier aircraft

On Monday, Virgin Orbit attempted the first full flight of its orbital payload launch system, which includes a modified Boeing 747 called ‘Cosmic Girl’ that acts as a carrier aircraft for its air-launched rocket LauncherOne. While Virgin Orbit has flown Cosmic Girl and LauncherOne previously for different tests and demonstrations, this was the first end-to-end system test. Unfortunately, that test ended much earlier than planned – just shortly after the LauncherOne rocket was released from Cosmic Girl.

Cosmic Girl took off just before 12 PM PT (3 PM ET) from Mojave Air and Spaceport in California. The aircraft was piloted by Chief Test Pilot Kelly Latimer, along with her co-pilot Todd Ericson. The aircraft then flew to its target release point, where LauncherOne did manage a “clean release” from the carrier craft as planned at around 12:50 PM PT (3:50 PM ET), but Virgin noted just a few minutes later that the mission was subsequently “terminated.”

While the Cosmic Girl crew and all other employees are confirmed safe by the company, this is likely to be a disappointing test. Still, Virgin Orbit’s CEO Dan Hart and VP Will Pomerantz cautioned that many first test missions for new launch systems don’t go quite as planned – which is why you test, after all.

The full planned flight map today for Virgin One’s orbital test.

The company will still likely be able to collect a lot of valuable data from this mission, which should provide insight into what went wrong. Once the company addresses the problems, it’s likely to set another attempt, and that might not be as far away as you might expect because Virgin has been very active on its launch vehicle pipeline and has backup craft nearly ready to fly.

“After being released from the carrier aircraft, the LauncherOne rocket successfully lighted its booster engine on cue — the first time the company had attempted an in-air ignition,” Virgin Orbit said via a spokesperson about today’s mission. “An anomaly then occurred early in first stage flight, and the mission safely terminated. The carrier aircraft Cosmic Girl and all of its crew landed safely at Mojave Air and Space Port, concluding the mission.”

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NASA and SpaceX set historic first astronaut launch for May 27

NASA and SpaceX have set a specific date and time target for their historic first astronaut launch aboard a private spacecraft from U.S. soil, with a planned date of May 27 and a target liftoff time of 4:32 PM EDT (1:32 PM PDT) from Kennedy Space Center, at SpaceX’s Launch Complex 39A (LC-39). The mission had been previously announced to be tracking toward a mid to late-May launch time frame, but now we know exactly when the agency and SpaceX hope to launch astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley for this inaugural trip to the International Space Station.

The launch is the first crewed mission in NASA’s Commercial Crew program, which seeks to return American launch capabilities to U.S. soil through private partnerships, with both SpaceX and Boeing taking part and developing their own separate launch vehicles and crew craft. SpaceX has taken all the steps necessary to get to this stage ahead of Boeing, and this flight, called Demo-2, while still technically part of the test program, will see NASA’s astronauts visit the space station for “an extended stay,” with a full duration yet to be determined.

This final test will validate each aspect of the Crew Dragon and Falcon 9 launch system, including the pad from which the rocket takes off, the operational facilities on the ground, orbital systems and astronaut procedures. Pending successful completion of all those elements, Crew Dragon should be set for full operational certification, after which time it can begin regularly scheduled service of delivering astronauts to and from the ISS.

For the mission, Crew Dragon will launch with Behnken and Hurley, then enter orbit and rendezvous with the ISS, which should occur around 24 hours after liftoff. The spacecraft is designed to dock fully autonomously with the station (and has done so on a previous occasion during an uncrewed demo mission), then Behnken and Hurley will disembark and join as members of the ISS crew, performing research on the orbital science platform.

The Crew Dragon flying this mission is designed to stay on orbit for around 110 days, but its actual length of stay will be decided by how ready the commercial crew mission to follow is at the time of launch. That Crew Dragon, which is the fully operational version, is designed for stays of at least 210 days, and the crew complement of four astronauts, including three from NASA and one from Japan’s space agency, is already determined. If all goes well, it’ll happen sometime later this year.

Crew Dragon from Demo-2 will perform an automated undocking from the ISS with Behnken and Hurley on board when it is ready to leave, and then they’ll re-enter Earth’s atmosphere and have a controlled splashdown landing in the Atlantic Ocean, where a SpaceX ship will pick them up and bring them back to Florida.

Obviously, NASA and SpaceX are facing challenges, along with everyone else, with the global COVID-19 crisis ongoing, but the agency has taken extra precautions to ensure this mission continues, since NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine notes that continued U.S. access to, and presence within the ISS is critical.

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After an extended quarantine, the next ISS crew arrives in orbit

Working from home is easy for some and difficult for others, but one place it’s downright impossible is the International Space Station . So pandemic or no pandemic, the latest crew had to get themselves up there. They’ve just had a successful launch and arrival, but only after a protracted quarantine period.
To be clear, ISS crews are always quarantined prior to launch to make sure they don’t bring the flu up from a chance encounter, but given the coronavirus situation, this was a special occasion. Quarantine started in April and not even the crew’s families were …

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Boeing to re-fly uncrewed demo mission of their human spacecraft after first try met with errors

Boeing has confirmed what many suspected following the partial failure of their original Starliner capsule Orbital Flight Test (OFT) – the company will re-fly the mission, once again seeking to test and demonstrate the Starliner’s launch, flight, Space Station docking and landing capabilities prior to flying a version of the mission with actual astronauts on board.
In a statement, Boeing said that it “has chosen” to re-fly the mission, in order to “demonstrate the quality of the Starliner system.” The aim will be to do all the test objectives that were on the table the first time around, the statement …

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Boeing suspends 787 airplane production

Boeing said Monday it will suspend all 787 operations at its South Carolina factory following a stay-at-home order issued by the governor, effectively putting the company’s entire commercial airplane production on hiatus.
The closure will start at the end of the second shift April 8. Boeing announced the production suspension on the same day it confirmed that it would re-fly the Starliner capsule Orbital Flight Test following a partial failure of that mission late last year. The test aims to demonstrate the Starliner’s launch, flight, Space Station docking and landing capabilities prior to flying a version of the mission with …

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As Boeing’s problems mount Airbus sales stall

As setbacks for Boeing’s 737 MAX accumulate, uncertainty over its path to recertification continues to impact companies within Boeing’s US supply chain, says GlobalData, a leading data and analytics company.

While some companies attempt to solicit business elsewhere, others cut jobs in order to deal with reduced demand. For …

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